Respect Tests 'Safe' Hartlepool Seat

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'There aren't many Muslim votes in Hartlepool,' was the cynical response of a Blair aide when asked whether Labour stood to lose one of its safest seats in the forthcoming by-election there.

There may not be that many Muslims in Hartlepool, but there are plenty of traditional Labour voters there who are determined not to vote Labour again. That was the message of the 110-strong public meeting organised by Respect in Hartlepool in the middle of the August holidays.

The packed hotel room heard the Respect MP George Galloway, Unison executive member Yunus Bakhsh, the local candidate for Respect in the by-election John Bloom, and myself make the case for a left alternative.

There are many local issues to turn voters against Labour in the town. A major factor is the outgoing MP, Peter Mandelson, who used the once safe Labour seat to further his career as a minister but who is now off to fill Neil Kinnock's shoes in Brussels. His relocation expenses alone are more than many Hartlepool people earn in a year.

Mandelson's standing is low, to say the least, in Hartlepool and few will regret his departure. But they have no enthusiasm for Iain Wright, the Mandelson clone who is poised to replace him.

On the other hand John Bloom, the Respect candidate, is a well-known campaigner against the closure of the local hospital. He has also been involved in campaigns on a range of issues going back to the 1984-85 miners' strike, including nuclear power and toxic waste - Hartlepool has been the unwilling recipient of ships containing this waste.

John lives and works locally and has the same interests and concerns as ordinary people in Hartlepool. There could not be a greater contrast between him and Mandelson.

But it isn't just about local issues: as everywhere else in Britain, many people are fed up with policies of privatisation and of turning once free public services into commodities to be sold on the market. Education has stopped being free, and students now suffer under the burden of huge debt at the beginning of their adult lives. Older people now face the prospect of living on the lowest pensions in western Europe.

And of course there is the war. Around a third of recruits to the British army come from the north east of England, an area of traditionally high unemployment which has seen the loss of jobs in traditional areas such as mining, shipbuilding and steel. There is a groundswell of feeling against the war and occupation, and against the money being spent on war which could go on schools and hospitals.

The Lib Dems pose as the anti-war party but supported the war once it started. They also support privatisation and cuts in spending in many parts of the country. Disaffection with Labour is hardly going towards the Tories. John Bloom is in with a fighting chance. And the more people get to know about Respect, the more likely they are to vote for the only real alternative to New Labour. Mandelson was perhaps the main architect of the New Labour project - what sweet revenge if the by-election marked its demise.