Richard Holden: Knightmare on Starmer Street. Labour loses control of Durham – held by the party for a century.

10 May

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

The Louisa Centre, Stanley, County Durham

At the count in Stanley at 3am on Friday morning after the verification checks on the ballot papers, I realised that I was witnessing the latest stage of the fundamental shift in British politics.

The communities that are not merely the heartlands but the birthplace of the Labour Party are decisively turning their backs on the party which turned its backs on them.

Two weeks ago in this column, I wrote about Keir Starmer and Labour’s five tests from this set of elections in the North East of England. To be fair to the Labour leader, these results cannot all be laid at his door – they have a much longer-term gestation.

However, the man who many thought would be Labour’s knight in shining armour has delivered results even worse than the outlier, “knightmare” scenarios that I suggested a fortnight ago.

Not only did the Conservatives remain the largest party in Northumberland, but they took overall control and, in doing so, took Hartley ward – and kicked out the Labour group leader on Northumberland County Council.

Sir Keir didn’t just fail my Stockton South test (remember: Stockton South was won by Corbyn’s Labour in the 2017 general election), but the excellent campaigning of Stockton South’s MP, Matt Vickers, with together with Ben Houchen, the Tees Valley Mayor, saw the Conservatives not just retain the Stockton South council seats that they’d held, but take all the seats that were up for election, including from Liberal Dems and independents.

Paul Williams, the former Labour MP for Stockton South, handpicked and put on a shortlist of one by Labour HQ, delivered a catstrophic result for Labour in Hartlepool. To lose the seat at this stage in the electoral cycle by that much would have previously been thought impossible, but it’s happened.

With the Conservatives gaining over 50 per cent of the vote in the by-election, and Labour finishing a poor second, it’s clear that, in terms of parliamentary seats, CCHQ now needs to be targeting the North East of England much more broadly for the next election, including such seats as: City of Durham, North Durham, all the Sunderland seats, Blaydon – and even perhaps Gateshead and Easington.

Houchen’s utterly overwhelming victory in the Tees Valley, gaining almost three quarters of the votes on the first round, is the strongest symbol of continued Conservative advance in the North of England. The Conservative gain of the Police Commissioner post in Cleveland is further proof of this. Particularly when the vote from Middlesbrough, widely believed still to be rock solid for Labour in Teesside, came out five to three in the Conservative’s favour.

To outsiders, the loss of Durham County Council by Labour to No Overall Control may not seem quite as totemic as some of the other results. But if anything it’s more so.

The Conservatives increased their number of seats by 14, taking them from the fifth largest group (there are two independent groups) to the position of second largest party behind Labour – in one fell swoop.

Durham is where the Labour Party first gained a county council in 1919 and they have held it ever since. The results overall for the Conservatives are really, really good – particularly in my constituency in North West Durham and in my good friend Dehenna Davison’s constituency in Bishop Auckland.

Scratch the surface, and the results are more impressive still. In North West Durham, we’re now second almost everywhere we didn’t win, from what were often poor third places just four years ago. The increasing vote and vote share was at least 100 per cent, and in some cases, such as in Consett North and in Consett South, the number of Conservative votes went up almost four times.

Even in Weardale, where Conservatives were challenging two long-established independent councillors, we jumped from third place to second place, and came within 85 votes of taking one of them out.

In Woodhouse Grove, in the Bishop Auckland constituency, Conservatives gained two new councillors, and only missed out by nine votes in the working class town of Willington in North West Durham. It’s quite clear that, from this incredible baseline, Conservatives can now make further progress both locally and at the next general election.

These campaigns really came down to incredibly hard graft on the ground. It’s clear that CCHQ needs to look at how we can really capitalise on this with extra resources in the coming months and years.

The results in the North East are not unique. To see Rotherham go from zero to 20 Conservative councillors is mindblowing, as are the exceptional gains in Hyndburn in Lancashire, where the Conservatives held the county council with an increased majority.

But this succes is not just in the North. The gains in Harlow, Dudley, Southampton and elsewhere by the Conservatives show an incredible national picture.

While these results are absolutely stunning, often with significantly increased turnouts, it’s clear that the future of these areas as key battlegrounds will require the promises made by the Prime Minister and the Conservative Party to deliver on levelling up to not only be delivered on in the long-term, but also to show that progress is being made within the next year-to-18 months too.

In some areas of the country, the Conservatives haven’t performed quite as well. Downing Street and CCHQ need to find out why this has ocurred, and learn the lessons not only from the great successes, but also from the places where we didn’t do as well as we’d hoped.

What’s clear from politics is that nothing ever stays the same. Who’d have thought that the narrow victory in the Teeside matoralty in 2017 following Brexit would have not only been the catalyst for a shift in voting, but a shift in poltical culture in the North East? People are no longer willing to accept either MPs or local authority leaders who see their position as a sinicure. Delivery is what counts.

We Conservatives are in government, and have the abilty to really make that happen. If we do so, our political prospects in these areas will just get better and better.