Labour was in our blood and bone. Now it’s left our hearts, says RUTH SUNDERLAND (North East born and bred)
Everyone’s mum – or Mam, as we say in the North East – has their favourite embarrassing story about their children.
Mine loves to recount how, aged eight, I answered the door to a Conservative candidate out canvassing, and upbraided the poor man at length on how wrong he was about everything.
I was born and bred in Middlesbrough, only a few miles from Hartlepool, into a family steeped in Labour loyalty.
My parents weren’t party members: You didn’t need to be. ‘Labour was in the air we breathed,’ I said to my mother yesterday, as we discussed the Hartlepool result. ‘No’, she replied, ‘it was more than that, it was in the blood and bone’.
Apart from the unfortunate candidate on our doorstep, I had barely met a Conservative until I went to university.
On the television in my parents’ semi, the male variety seemed like Alan B’Stards and the women helmet-haired termagants, very remote from our lives.The first time I voted Tory was in 2019. It felt like a betrayal of my roots and of my late father, who lost his job in the 1980s recession.
Boris Johnson celebrating the by-election victory in Hartlepool with the MP Jill Mortimer
For several elections, I had felt unable to vote Labour but nor could I bring myself to put a cross next to the Conservatives – until Jeremy Corbyn tipped me over the edge.
My point is that north-easterners like me don’t turn our backs on Labour lightly, which is why this by-election result is so extraordinary and cannot be written off as a protest vote.
The reason so many people in the region are changing their political allegiance is that the Tories are offering hope, jobs and real improvements to people’s lives, while Labour is still peddling its old messages of victimhood and blame.
The Conservative Party has moved on from the dark, divisive days of the 1980s but Labour is stuck in the past, with little in the way of constructive policies to make lives better.
From their lofty vantage points, socialist grandees seem unable to grasp that north- easterners do not want to be patronised, branded as no-hopers and told it’s all the Tories’ fault.
After years in charge of the region, during which Labour failed to bring back jobs and prosperity, that mantra sounds very tired.
Brexit naturally played a big part. Hartlepool was an anti-EU stronghold and it didn’t help that the Labour candidate this time, Dr Paul Williams, was a Remainer.
At least Boris Johnson has a big personality, which is more than can be said for the bloodless Sir Keir Starmer (pictured)
Brexit naturally played a big part. Hartlepool was an anti-EU stronghold and it didn’t help that the Labour candidate this time, Dr Paul Williams, was a Remainer
As for Boris Johnson and the wallpaper-gate shenanigans, the old Etonian Prime Minister probably has little common ground with most Hartlepudlians. But at least he has a big personality, which is more than can be said for the bloodless Sir Keir Starmer.
In the North East, we like our Labour leaders passionate and fiery. Starmer seems well meaning, but it’s hard to picture him leading a Jarrow Crusade.
The region has had more than its share of powerful Labour MPs, including Peter Mandelson, a previous member for Hartlepool, Tony Blair in Sedgefield and David Miliband in South Shields. Yet it has remained stuck in the doldrums, lagging better-off parts of the country.
And there’s the rub. In my view, the result isn’t all about Covid and Corbyn, as Mandelson suggested, but the local economy. It is a Tory Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, who is setting up a branch of the Treasury in Darlington and a Freeport on Teesside – both of which Labour could have done while in power.
Under the auspices of the Conservative Mayor of Tees Valley, Ben Houchen, Teesside airport has reopened, and the site of the former Redcar steelworks is being redeveloped. Thousands of jobs are being created, in an area that has suffered decades of devastating losses.
It feels far more hopeful than the Teesside where I grew up in the 1980s, when my father lost first his livelihood as a steel worker, then his pride and finally his health.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson and newly elected MP Jill Mortimer at Jacksons Wharf in Hartlepool, County Durham
We were just one of thousands of families caught up in the Thatcherite overhaul of heavy industry, which I now can see was necessary, though it should have been carried out with far greater compassion. Our family went through immense pain and anger, and at the time we blamed the Tories.
Those scars run deep. I never thought there would come a day when I would not only be witnessing a Conservative triumph in the North East, but also – albeit with mixed emotions – welcoming it.
If hope for the jobs of the future lies with the Tories, then that is how people will vote. Nostalgia doesn’t pay the mortgage.
Boris should not be complacent. Voting Tory is not the same thing as being a Tory. There is a long way to go before the Tories will have the heartfelt support Labour commanded for so long and squandered.
But if they deliver employment and growth, the Conservatives could win over aspiring voters in the North East just as Mrs Thatcher captured the imagination of Essex man and woman in the 1980s.
I don’t speak with the zeal of a convert. I hope Labour can sort itself out and become vote-worthy again so we have a credible opposition. Most of all, I am sad that the party of my youth and my heritage can no longer be the party of my heart.
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