Away from the biggest cities, the north can no longer be relied on to deliver landslide Labour victories—or even narrow onesby Helen Pidd / May 15, 2017 / Leave a comment
It was on the badminton court at Thornaby leisure centre on the morning after the local elections that the full extent of the Labour Party’s problems were laid bare. Most media organisations hadn’t bothered to send a journalist to Teesside to cover the count of the Tees Valley mayoral election. There are no direct trains from London, after all, and everyone assumed that Labour had it in the bag. Like it always did.
I was at my local count in Manchester waiting for Andy Burnham’s victory speech when a colleague told me the Conservatives had won the Tees Valley mayoral race. I laughed in his face. It took a few seconds before I realised he was serious. A Tory was now in charge of Middlesbrough: a place so blindly devoted to Labour that its former MP, Stuart Bell, got away with not holding a single constituency surgery from 1997 until 2011. The victor could hardly believe it either. “We are seeing a massive trend towards the Conservatives. We have started to turn the Tees Valley blue,” said 30-year-old Stockton councillor Ben Houchen, who beat Labour’s Sue Jeffrey by 2,178 votes.
Only last year, I spent a day driving around the Tees Valley with James Wharton, then the minister for the northern powerhouse, and—as the MP for Stockton South since 2010—the only Tory on Teesside. He seemed resigned to the fact Labour would walk the mayoral election and happily pointed out the communities in his own constituency who would vote for him (nice bits, like Thornaby and Yarm) and the places where he had no chance (downtown Stockton).
What a difference a year makes. June’s election will be the first time in Wharton’s political career that his seat has not been on any rival party’s target list. Now it is the Conservatives who have their sights set on Teesside. Before the mayoral election last week I asked Wharton where his lot were in with a shot in the north east. It was a long list, and included Sedgefield. Sedgefield! A town where Tony Blair won an 18,449 majority even in 2005, after Iraq. A place that has been red since before Second World War.
It was still a very different story back in the Manchester Central convention centre—the same place where, in September 2015, delegates arriving for the Tory conference were pelted with eggs and greeted with a choir of middle-class women from south Manchester’s leafy suburbs singing “do one, you Tory scum” in perfect harmony. Here, in the heart of the north’s greatest metropolis, Sean Anstee, the only Tory leader of a Greater Manchester council, had scraped 23 per cent of the vote to Burnham’s 63 per cent, and lost to Labour even in his own borough of Trafford. “Are you making inroads?” I recently asked a Tory activist working on the Manchester Gorton by-election triggered by Gerald Kaufman’s death, now cancelled because of the general election. “Absolutely none,” he cheerfully replied.
In the heart of the diverse and student-packed big cities of the north, just as in inner London, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party appears to be holding its own better than elsewhere. Nonetheless, many Labour MPs in Greater Manchester are just as worried as their counterparts on Teesside—especially those in the outer boroughs, knocking on doors far from the cranes building luxury apartments and office blocks in the city centre.
The heartlands can no longer be relied on to deliver landslide victories, or even narrow ones. In my job as the Guardian’s North of England Editor I spend almost all of my time in what would have been considered Labour heartland territory: the rugby league towns with football teams in the lower divisions and lots of terraced houses with no front gardens. Before the 2015 general election it was clear Labour’s support was softer than it should have been, but there were still enough people who would say their dad/grandad would never forgive them if they didn’t vote Labour. Now, when I ask which party has their support, many begin the sentence in the same way and then end it by saying, “but I’ve had enough—I’m going to vote Conservative this time.” Increasingly, they actually say they are voting for “Theresa.” They usually ask that I don’t put their name in the paper, however. Voting Conservative isn’t something they are ready to shout about just yet.
Sometimes the new Tory voters feel conflicted. In Copeland in Cumbria, where the Conservatives beat Labour by 2,147 votes in February, many said they didn’t really trust the Tories with the NHS. But they couldn’t vote for that idiot/crackpot/numpty/extremist in charge of the Labour Party. It wasn’t just because they didn’t believe Corbyn had changed his mind about nuclear power and they or someone in their family worked at Sellafield. They just didn’t think he had enough oomph. No wonder John Woodcock—the MP for neighbouring Barrow and Furness, and, it fairness, a Corbyn-baiter from day one—has decided that the only chance he has to defend a majority of 795 in a seat dependent on the construction of nuclear submarines is to come out against Corbyn. “I will not countenance ever voting to make Jeremy Corbyn Britain’s Prime Minister,” he told voters in a video. “Jeremy’s opposition to the Trident renewal programme is lifelong and is well known.” But Corbyn is at the helm, and in northern England no Labour seat outside the cities can truly be considered safe.
Where will Theresa May’s surprise ballot leave the government, the opposition and a divided country? Join us for our big election debate on the 6th of June 2017. Tom Clark, Prospect’s editor, will be joined by Nick Cohen, Matthew Parris and Meg Russell of the Constitution Unit.