We finish our series on the pioneering success stories in breaking the red wall, with the story of Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland. Simon Clarke gained the seat from Labour in 2017 with a majority of 1,020. He was re-elected last month with a majority of 11,626. It should be acknowledged that the Conservative victory here is less shocking in historical terms than some of the other places we have considered. The constituency had been Labour since it was created in 2017. But Paul Bristow nearly gained it for the Conservatives in 2010, losing by 1,677. When the seat was created, part of it was taken from the Langbaurgh constituency which had been Conservative. However, the increased majority from 2017 to 2019 is another instructive example that newly returned Tory MPs will seek to emulate. Clarke, a staunch Brexiteer, who at 6 ft 7 inches tall, is now the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, has the pressure of combining that role with his constituency duties.
The constituency is split across two councils. The wards of Brotton, Guisborough, Hutton, Lockwood, Loftus, Saltburn, Skelton and Westworth come under Redcar and Cleveland Council. While the wards of Coulby Newham, Hemlington, Ladgate, Marton, Marton West, Nunthorpe, Park End, and Stainton and Thornton fall within Middlesbrough Council.
Redcar and Cleveland Council is run by an independent/Lib Dem coalition. In the elections last May the Conservative held steady with 11 seats. But Labour was down 13 seats, mostly to independents. Four years ago, I noted Labour infighting which will probably not have helped them. Yet Labour’s woes will run deeper than whether or not a few councillors should have been deselected.
Middlesbrough is now run by a independents with the backing of three Conservative councillors. Labour lost 13 seats last year and thus control of the Council. While there has been a been a big surge in Conservative Party membership in the Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland there has yet to a real breakthrough in terms of councillors.
The growth of independents reflects a pattern elsewhere, that many voters find it easier to stop voting Labour, than to start voting Conservative. But that can prove the first phase of a transition in voting behaviour. A by-election in the Coulby Newham Ward is due to take place soon which will give an indication of progress. Many Conservatives remain shy. Those campaigning on social media, where views are openly expressed, found much more hostility than those knocking on doors.
Traffic congestion is a big local issue in south Middlesbrough. The Marton Road is nicknamed the Marton Crawl. Clarke has described it as “a nightmare for commuters, a burden for business and a danger to patients trying to get to James Cook Hospital.” He has surveyed residents to ask their thoughts on a partial bypass, redesigning junctions, adding slip roads… I suppose that now he is a Treasury Minister, he can write a letter to himself demanding funding.
If there are traffic jams it makes it harder to persuade people of the case for new housing. While it is important for development to be beautiful, it also needs to be backed up by infrastructure – as well as new schools and extra GP capacity. Attacking a failing Labour Council is easy; overcoming these problems in fractious coalitions with assorted independents more of a challenge.
While I have passed on a variety of campaigning tips this week which I hope are useful, the main messages from the 2017 pioneers kept being repeated. Realising Conservative potential was about the right mentality. Working hard and showing constant and unapologetic local pride. It also means being unapologetic about Conservative principles – and finding ways of applying them in campaigns that are relevant and popular. Rather than wallowing in victimhood, it is about championing the successes of the constituency. That doesn’t mean ignoring problems but it does require offering solutions and delivering them. The tendency of Labour MPs to just complain is less effective. When Margaret Thatcher visited the north east to highlight business enterprise, she was exasperated at being questioned by “moaning minnies”. It was seen as a gaffe at the time but she had a point.
Perhaps the most heartening message to Conservative MPs returned in seats where they have few members or councillors is that, as sitting MPs, they will come across many people interested in getting involved – who just need to be invited to do so.