The North East is up for grabs – if Mayor Houchen can take it
With no net changes after 52 days of the most hotly contested general election campaign in the North East of England for decades, you’d be forgiven for imagining it’s a case of ‘plus ca change, plus ca meme chose’. Yet below the surface, there are new trends at work.
When Theresa May kicked off the campaign, many sitting Labour MPs were edgy. Across the region, canvassers heard lifelong Labour voters say again and again how they preferred the PM’s stance on Brexit. Similarly, it is clear that voting Conservative is no longer the taboo it once was for previous generations.
Just a week before election day, Conservative polling analysts were privately confident enough about Darlington and Bishop Auckland that they were pushing on for Tynemouth and even Tony Blair’s old seat in Sedgefield.
The Tories’ share of the vote in the region rose to its highest since 1983. However, CCHQ’s redirection of resources to ultimately safe Labour seats proved overconfident and contributed to what senior Conservatives in the region have described as a “bloody terrible” campaign.
The widely expected victory for the policy-minded Simon Clarke in Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland was therefore cancelled out by the defeat of James Wharton in Stockton South to NHS GP, Dr Paul Williams.
This was a true shock as the former Northern Powerhouse minister proved an able communicator in the referendum campaign and has won admirers across government and in Downing Street. Expect to see him retain a strong profile for the party in the region.
For Labour, remarkable crowds on the banks of the Tyne in Gateshead flocking to see Jeremy Corbyn accompanied increased turnout across the region. The leader has clearly engaged new voters as have a new generation of MPs since 2010, such as Julie Elliott and Anna Turley, who have campaigned week-in week-out since they were elected, championing local issues like steel jobs, regardless of their large majorities.
That partly explains the ability to win back voters who previously supported UKIP and the Lib Dems. As per the national picture, North East university seats in Newcastle and Durham proved resilient for Labour too. However, they did not deliver a boost anywhere close to surging majorities in Bristol or the shock gain in Canterbury.
So in apparently contradictory fashion, those seeking to engage government and MPs across in the North East should aim to work constructively with a refreshed Labour Party now within reach of becoming the largest party at the next election.
At the same time, expect the region’s Conservatives not to allow a misfiring national campaign to derail them again, as they plot to turn near misses and stretch targets into blue gains next time.
Indeed, the party’s potential in the region is proven by the success of Conservative Ben Houchen’s hard won victory in the Tees Valley mayoral race back in May.
His leadership offers North East Tories the opportunity to demonstrate how local Conservatives working together with a Conservative-led government in Westminster can deliver visible benefits on the ground, especially with Middlesbrough-born Business Secretary Greg Clark at the helm of industrial strategy.
More widely beyond Mayor Houchen, the prominence of Andy Burnham and Andy Street’s elections poses a question for how long the north of the region is determined to sit apart from the devo table? Council leaders have been vocal in their suspicions about the government passing down responsibility for austerity cuts. However, regional assets and challenges need regional champions – for example, the risk to Newcastle Airport from the potential abolition of air passenger duty by the Scottish Government.
So apparently no change, but things are definitely not the same. Traditional party ties have loosened. Taking seats or gains for granted is no longer an option for either party. The North East political landscape is up for grabs whenever the next election comes.
Read about the 2017 General Election results for every region in the UK, with analysis from our DevoIntelligence Panel here.