HARTLEPOOL is Ukip's number one target in the North-East. Should it win, it will create an earthquake in North-East politics – and this time it'd be a very serious earthquake.

The last time a seismic shift in Hartlepool was registered on a national level was in 2002, when the town voted a man in a monkey suit as mayor. It was treated as a joke, although in hindsight, perhaps there was an important, early message for the town's highly successful Labour Party: people were becoming disengaged from mainstream politics; they wanted something fresh – an outsider.

Ukip leader Nigel Farage picked up on that outsider status in his speech to Ukip's regional conference held in December at the Borough Hall in old Hartlepool, talking about a need to "end the North-East's one party state". Perhaps, in Hartlepool at least, they are coming close to it: in 2010, the party won just seven per cent of the vote but at last year's European parliament elections, it topped the poll in the town.

What's more, Ukip has been active in Hartlepool longer than any other constituency in the region. It came third in a by-election way back in 2004, ahead of the Conservatives, when the party was barely heard of elsewhere.

Candidate Philip Broughton, still just 31 years old and once Stockton's youngest councillor as a Conservative, declares himself convinced he can win. Of course, he can hardly say anything else. But he insists that his canvassing returns put him slightly ahead of his Labour rival, Iain Wright, who last time had a fairly substantial 5,509 majority.

Sitting in his bright and airy living room in his Ingleby Barwick home, Mr Broughton is earnest and entirely serious, even though Labour has won Hartlepool – as it has won nearly every seat in the North-East – at every election since 1959, and was even the clear winner in the major Thatcher landslides of 1983 and 1987.

"But I'm not just appealing to Conservative supporters," he says. "That's a toxic brand in the North-East. I'm appealing to former Labour voters just as much."

Mr Broughton, a comprehensive-educated, Sunderland son of a former miner turned electrical engineer and a nurse, claims to know what an ordinary, Labour-voting North-Easterner might be interested in. Despite working as a full-time check-out supervisor, he has spent a year canvassing the streets of Hartlepool every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, and is sure about what issues are in his favour: the decline of Hartlepool's hospital and immigration.

The Northern Echo has well-documented the controversy surrounding the proposal to build new £464m 'super-hospital' in Wynyard, between Stockton and Hartlepool, a plan which has stalled. The scheme was supported by Mr Wright but in the years waiting for that hospital to be built vital services at Hartlepool's hospital haemorrhaged to Stockton, including A&E. The Labour MP in fact opposed the loss of those services but Mr Broughton insists it is a vote-winner for Ukip. "Iain Wright has flip-flopped on the hospital," he contends," he's been all over the place. I consistently opposed Wynyard, which was pie-in-the-sky, and any loss of services."

But why is immigration an issue in a town where, according to the 2011 census, just 2.3 per cent of the population is foreign-born, one of the lowest levels in the country? "People look at the national picture," says Mr Broughton, "and people know Labour opened the immigration door."

By now, Mr Broughton, once a showman wrestler, is animated and passionate. Some of his beliefs could be conceived of as surprisingly left-wing. "I'm passionate about the NHS, it's one of the main reasons I moved away from the Conservative Party," he says.

Just as Ukip is seen being made up of Tories in exile, so Mr Broughton has been labelled a "Thatcherite" because of his background. "I was seven when she left office," he says.

And then he adds: "Of course, you do need the state – but only what it does well."

In response to the Ukip threat, Mr Wright stresses that he does not take any vote for granted and rejects his rival as "not a particularly credible candidate". As for the accusation of "flip-flopping" on the hospital, Mr Wright responds: "My chief concern as a long-term resident of Hartlepool has always been the best possible health care for Hartlepool. I'm not flip-flopping and I'm not taking advice from an ex-Tory councillor from Yarm, whose party leader wants to charge to use a GP."

Labour will always be favourites in Hartlepool and the real strength of Ukip's challenge in its number one seat is hard to gauge. But Nigel Farage was clear in that conference: the aim was not to replace Labour but to become the principal opposition to it across the North-East.

May 7 in Hartlepool will show how much progress they are making and whether the tectonic plates really are shifting in the region.