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…