Cllr Robert Oliver is the Leader of the Conservative Group on Sunderland City Council. He is on the Candidates List but did not stand in the General Election last week.
There is no doubt that the results across the North East were nothing short of spectacular for the Conservative Party, with blue territory expanding way beyond what was held up until to 1992. The Labour vote fell by 13 per cent across the region as seats that had not returned a Conservative member before, such as Blyth Valley, or Bishop Auckland, were snatched from Labour’s grasp. The star performer must be Jacob Young who turned Redcar into ‘Bluecar’ on a whopping 15 per cent swing in the same seat where Vera Baird was ousted on the biggest swing in 2010.
Valiant losers included Nick Oliver in Jarrow, where 10,000 votes came off Labour’s Kate Osborne who had churned stomachs with her liking of a post with a gun to Theresa May’s head. To be fair, a handful of Labour candidates had objected to her selection but it is the darker side of the party that holds the whip-hand in the North East, with the sensible cast aside. Of the former, the demise of Laura Pidcock, and the near-demise of Ian Lavery, were symbolic: their firebrand hatred of “Tories”, and their constant dredging up of ‘the pits’ wearing thin.
Listening to Corbyn protege, Laura Pidcock, for two long years, has been painful and pointless with one wag telling me that, “If I want to be harangued, I can ‘phone my mother-in-law!”.
Catherine McKinnell, the winner in Newcastle North for Labour, summed up the night by describing the results as “nothing short of disastrous for Labour in the North East”.
It was no surprise that so many of the gains came in the south of the region where Tees Valley mayor, Ben Houchen, is proving that Conservatives in power can make things happen. His success gives the lie to tired accusations that ‘Tories don’t care about the North East’ and proves that when in office, we, not Labour, make life better for local people.
In Sunderland too a record £2 billion investment since 2010 – symbolised by the Northern Spire Bridge – is also prompting some to think again and give the Conservatives a chance. There, the three seats narrowed to 3,000 majorities, in a city where Labour skated home by 20,000 in 1997, but is now seen as not listening to the people they serve. Campaigning for a ‘People’s Vote’ in a city where 62 per cent had backed withdrawal from the EU did much damage locally as did baseless claims that people had changed their minds.
Whilst Corbyn and Brexit are accepted as the key reasons for the breaching of the ‘red wall’ there are other factors which played into the hands of the resurgent North East Conservatives.
From conversations on the doorstep in Sunderland Central, it was clear that suspicion of the Labour leader went beyond the personal to the fundamental question of competence. This was particularly true on the cost of the manifesto promises described to me by a Labour Party member as ‘lollipops for all’ though he was not the only one who saw through it.
Labour candidates desperately distanced themselves from their leader, with David Miliband in the region winking at the voters that if only they held their noses, this time change would come. Many saw through the fraud of Labour candidates pretending that they were ‘Labour but not Corbyn’ or a ‘Labour Government’ as if the leader would be subservient to the dissenters.
As the night unfolded, the defeated took their revenge, with Phil Wilson, who lost Tony Blair’s Sedgefield seat, saying the leadership had gone down like a “lead balloon on the doorstep”. Some of the Labour MPs in the region had been saved by the Corbyn surge in 2017 and had then expressed gratitude through gritted teeth, but two years is a long time in politics.
Of the Conservative candidates, those selected early – many of whom, like Paul Howell in Sedgefield, were local councillors – were able to get themselves known in their seats.
As in Scotland, where Ruth Davison presented the party as the Scottish Conservatives with local candidates and local concerns, so here, successful candidates were rooted in their seats. This was a crucial response to lingering images of the party as Southern-based and a defence of privilege and wealth with candidates having lived through austerity since 2010.
For those last nine years, the Labour Party in the North East has done little but complain and blame ‘Tories’ often about issues they could have dealt with during their 13 years in power. Opposing the benefits cap was a big mistake in a region where the maximum amount in benefits is greater than the median wage for those who have to go out and do a day’s work.
So what needs to be done to ensure a genuine and lasting Conservative revival in the north east, rather than a handful of one-term Tories vulnerable to a resurgent Labour Party?
At the Sunderland count, Julie Elliott, now in a marginal seat, said voters had told her they would come back when her party was once more a “sensible centre-Left party”. But times are changing, with tribal loyalties weakened and attitudes hardening, and Labour dominance is diluted by devolution, academisation of schools, and trade union decline. Devolution, in particular, has thrown down the gauntlet, with the Labour Party no longer able to blame others as they take on responsibility for regeneration through directly elected mayors.
Places like Consett, in North West Durham, have moved on, with the site of the steel works now a smart housing estate alongside a mammoth Tesco – and many of the people have changed too. Some see the Labour Party as more suited to the dinner tables of Islington than the streets of Consett and here lies an opportunity for the North East Conservatives to move into that space.
But only a successful Conservative Government, that delivers investment to left-behind towns, and improves the public services that more depend on here, will really turn the North East blue.