Simon Clarke is the Conservative MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland.
Teesside in the 19th Century should be thought of as the Victorian equivalent of modern China. A combination of pioneering technology, favourable geography and huge inward migration to power first the steel and then the chemical industry caused a population explosion – so much so that William Gladstone, then Chancellor, branded Middlesbrough England’s “infant Hercules” in 1862.
The boom times continued deep into the 20th Century, with enduring legacies like the Sydney Harbour Bridge standing proud today. However, with a lack of investment in new technology and confronted by the chill winds of foreign competition, throughout my lifetime Teesside has grappled with a legacy of high unemployment, and poor education, health and welfare outcomes.
All this makes for a rather unlikely political battleground, yet the Tees Valley will play a crucial role at the next General Election. My own seat of Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, which I gained from Labour in June 2017 by just over 1,000 votes, sits next to a string of wafer-thin Labour marginals – Stockton South, Darlington and Bishop Auckland. The latter is particularly striking. In 1997, the Labour majority was over 21,000. Today, it is just 500.
What explains this? Brexit, in part. My constituents voted to Leave by two to one, and Labour’s increasingly desperate attempt to pretend it is simultaneously honouring the wishes of people in Middlesbrough and Muswell Hill will ultimately have to be resolved by a final vote for or against our Brexit deal. People don’t trust Labour to deliver what they voted for in the referendum.
However, a more subtle dividing line locally comes down to faith in the future, with Labour’s declinism standing in stark contrast to Conservative ambition for Teesside.
Just before the disastrous General Election manifesto struck last summer, Ben Houchen was elected as the first Mayor of the Tees Valley – an extraordinary success for a Conservative in an area where all five local authorities are Labour-controlled. Since his election, Ben has focused relentlessly on making a success of the South Tees Mayoral Development Corporation, which is centred on the site of the former SSI steelworks and represents the most exciting regeneration project in the UK today.
In the Budget, the Chancellor allocated £123 million to remediate the steelworks site and allow the private sector to move in. There have been over 60 expressions of interest from companies large and small, and the vision is to create 20,000 skilled jobs over the next 25 years. The first major announcement is expected this spring.
The response of local Labour MPs to this regeneration investment could hardly have been more grudging. Rather than welcome the most significant investment on Teesside in a generation, they queued up to pour cold water on it, prompting Robert Cuffe, Trinity Mirror’s North East Managing Director, to tweet:
‘Breaking News. Yesterday Teesside was at risk of an outbreak of optimism and hope. Families wondering if potentially good news had broken out. Thankfully Loyal Labour Forces came out quickly with Party Gloom Blankets to try and extinguish the hope.’
For too long it has quite suited many in the Labour Party to maintain a downbeat narrative about Teesside, even when that is transparently inaccurate and harmful to inward investment. People are now noticing this – ‘real’ people who aren’t political obsessives, but care deeply about the future of their area and have a fierce pride in Teesside. They notice it both because it contrasts with their hopes for the future, and with their own lived experience.
This really crystallised for me when I appeared on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire show a few weeks ago to discuss life in the area. The film about Redcar and Cleveland played to every conceivable stereotype of life being grim up north, and was captioned ‘Former Steel Town Faces Bleak Future’. Chi Onwurah, Labour’s Shadow Business Minister, joined the chorus of woe, as did Sue Jeffrey, the Leader of Redcar and Cleveland Council, who talked about the “opportunities others see happening elsewhere”.
The reality is a steady renewal of manufacturing strength is taking place on Teesside. We are the only net exporting region of England. The North East recently set a new record with is highest-ever level of employment, creating jobs more quickly than anywhere else in the UK other than Northern Ireland last autumn.
There are other reasons for optimism. Just down the road from my constituency, Sirius Minerals’ new Woodsmith Mine will open in 2021, creating well over 1,000 jobs and joining Cleveland Potash’s mine at Boulby as the only place in the world where the new wonder ingredient for fertiliser, Polyhalite, can be produced.
Meanwhile, local Conservatives are fighting to make a reality of the excellent proposal that Teesport should become the first Free Port in the UK. Free Ports, popular in much of the rest of the world, are deemed to be outside the country for customs purposes. This means that goods can enter and then leave a port without incurring import duties, providing a huge boost to domestic manufacturing and reshoring jobs. While some moderate Labour MPs are in favour, this is the kind of upbeat, pro-enterprise thinking that their Party has long since stopped delivering, and which it is impossible to see Labour implementing in Government.
These are the new battle lines. In the North East, Labour now embrace the politics of “things can only get worse”. We Conservatives know things are getting better.