Constituency profile: Could Hull West turn blue?

An installation titled We Are Hull by artist Zolst Balogh is projected onto the city's Maritime Museum, forming part of the Made in Hull series marking the official opening of Hull's tenure as UK City of Culture.
An installation titled We Are Hull by artist Zolst Balogh is projected onto the city's Maritime Museum, forming part of the Made in Hull series marking the official opening of Hull's tenure as UK City of Culture.
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For two decades it had been the stomping ground of Alan Johnson, home secretary under Gordon Brown and once championed as a future Labour leader.

But this time, things are different in the west of Hull. Johnson has stepped down and appears only by proxy, in a video produced for his successor. His high profile secured him a 9,333 majority two years ago, but if personality is a factor now, it is an independent who is most likely to benefit.

Mr Johnson’s departure and - if the local election results are a guide - the unlikelihood of Ukip retaining the 20 per cent of the vote that put it in second place in 2015, has shortened the odds on one of Yorkshire’s fiercest Labour strongholds turning blue, for the first time in living memory.

His noticeable absence from the area notwithstanding - “He’s more of a pundit now, isn’t he,” says his heiress apparent, Emma Hardy - Johnson could still be the most significant figure when his old constituents go to the polls.

A fierce critic of Jeremy Corbyn, whom he has called “useless” and “incapable”, he had led Labour’s campaign to remain in the EU. Ms Hardy, who was until 18 months ago a primary school teacher on the outskirts of Hull, insists that his absence at her side on the stump - which might have guaranteed her passage to Westminster - isn’t an issue.

“Alan has been a mentor,” she says. “He was the reason I joined the Labour Party.”

She had lobbied him after Michael Gove’s education reforms in 2011 and been impressed by his support. This is her first election campaign and she had placed education funding front and centre.

“Surely, putting money into young people matters,” she says. “It’s criminal what’s happening to school funding at the moment. They’re not seeing that every child has the chance to go to college, to university.”

Her opponent, Christine Mackay, is a veteran of the last two elections in Hull East and many council skirmishes. “But being a Conservative in Hull hasn’t been easy,” she admits.

It may be easier now. “Lord Ashcroft Polls has said it’s too close to call,” she says, referring to the billionaire Tory businessman turned pollster, Michael Ashcroft. “It’s the best chance that any party has had of overturning the Labour majority.”

She and Ms Hardy agree that the election this time will be fought on policies, not personalities - though Ms Mackay points out that if voters do want to seek out a familiar face, they need not look far.

No further, in fact, than the oak-panelled “plotting parlour” of the White Harte on Silver Street, where Charles I was refused entry to Hull, an act that led directly to the Civil War, and where Michelle Dewberry is now planning her own modest insurrection.

The former reality TV star - she was Lord Sugar’s Apprentice in 2006 - says she does not see herself as a personality, and is seeking to position herself as the natural choice for disillusioned Labour voters appalled at Jeremy Corbyn and from fellow Brexiteers who want a strong and stable Brexit negotiation but not the rest of the Tory package.

Like her opponents, she wants clarity on how Brexit will affect Hull’s investors, not least those who rely on EU funding. Unlike them, she supported Brexit in the first place, as did two-thirds of her potential constituents.

The fact that Hull has European investors says much about its improving fortunes of late. Its status as city of culture has helped, as has the £8m Smith & Nephew research centre and the £160m Siemens rotor blade plant at Green Port.

Claire Thomas, a long-serving Liberal Democrat councillor, is fighting the seat for the second time, having secured 10 per cent of the vote in 2015. Her party, she says, is the “natural opposition” in Hull, having controlled the council for four years from 2007 and occupying roughly a third of its seats now.

“Lib Dems got more votes than Labour at last year’s local elections,” she points out, noting it is Jeremy Corbyn, not Brexit, that dominates her conversations on doorsteps. “People are disillusioned with Labour but not sure they can vote Conservative,” she says.

• OPTIMISM has returned to Hull for the first time in many years, the main candidates in the city’s western constituency agree.

Conservative Christine Mackay recalled hearing of its successful bid to be city of culture for 2017 while she was going through a train tunnel. “When we came out at the other end, everyone’s phone was buzzing,” she says. “It was the same when Hull City got into the Premiership.”

“The danger is that tourists see Hull just as this year’s destination. We need to capitalise on the tourist economy.”

Labour’s Emma Hardy adds: “I was there for the fireworks on New Year’s Eve and it was brilliant. It’s given everyone a feeling of optimism, and people don’t want it to end on December 31. They want this regeneration to continue in the way it did in Liverpool.”

Ms Mackay, who works as a scientific advisor, believes Hull can be a leader in the emerging technology sector. “One of the negotiation objectives is to make the UK the best place for innovation,” she says. Independent Michelle Dewberry agrees, pointing to the “fourth industrial revolution” of robotics and intense automation.

Neither is enamoured with Labour’s nationalisation agenda.

“The world has changed,” says Ms Mackay. “Governments are not skilled and competent in running big businesses. I don’t see how going back to the 1970s is at all going to be helpful to us when we are looking at businesses to drive the local economy.”

Ms Dewberry, who was born two miles from where the KCom Stadium now stands, remembers when “Whi’fr’gate” was teeming with shops, and believes that by encouraging pop-up businesses, it could be again.

“I had to leave Hull for career opportunities,” she says. “I want young people to have the same opportunities here.”

• MENTAL HEALTH has been made a central issue in the fight for Hull West, following a number of high-profile deaths on the Humber Bridge.

“Mental health should be taken as seriously as physical health,” says independent Michelle Dewberry, who also campaigns on the issue.

Labour’s Emma Hardy is also concerned about the stress piled on to young people by the pressure of mandatory tests. “It’s no coincidence that there is a rise in mental health problems,” she says.

Lib Dem Claire Thomas, who works for a mental health charity, adds: “The rate of suicides is worse in Yorkshire than anywhere else in England.”