Harry Fone: Local authorities should not start or invest in energy companies

2 Nov

Harry Fone is the Grassroots Campaign Manager for the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

New research by the TaxPayers’ Alliance has revealed the shocking amounts of taxpayers’ cash that has almost literally gone up in smoke due to underperforming investments in energy companies by local authorities. Thanks to the work of our superb research team we revealed that 13 energy companies in receipt of council investment had a net loss of over £74 million between 2016-17 and 2019-20. Of these eight were council-owned and their losses totalled £114 million in the same period.

Perhaps not unsurprisingly, three of those companies are now either in administration or liquidation; Bristol’s BE 2020, Nottingham’s Robin Hood Energy, and Portsmouth’s Victory Energy Supply. This may not be surprising to anyone who has followed this issue; the writing has been on the wall for years now. But the huge sums of taxpayers’ money that have gone down the drain is astonishing.

Between 2016-17 and 2019-20, BE 2020 experienced the largest cumulative losses of any energy company at £46.5 million. Robin Hood Energy lost the most money in a single year at nearly £23.1 million in 2018-19, with total losses coming in at £31.6 million over a four year period. In those same four years, £132.3 million of public investment has been plunged into energy firms by local authorities.

Now at this point, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the UK energy market is incredibly competitive and volatile, the latter being especially true at the moment. So there could be more bad news to come given recent news that a number of firms are on the brink of financial collapse. But – is there any good news? Have any council-owned or council-invested energy companies made a profit? The answer is yes but with some big caveats.

Five councils invested money in energy suppliers that were independently operated. Of these, four made a profit between 2016-17 and 2018-19. So it could be argued that if councils are desperate to get into the energy market then this is the better option based on the data available.

Of the eight council-owned companies, only one registered a profit – but dive a little deeper into the numbers and a fuller picture emerges. B&D Energy is owned by Barking and Dagenham council. Over the four year period (2016-17 to 2018-19) it posted profits of nearly £300,000. However, it received the largest amount of capital investment from taxpayers at £38.8 million. This consisted of £30.2 million in loans from the council with the rest coming in grant form thanks to the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Also interesting to note – that as of 2020-21, B&D Energy only has 477 customers so they shouldn’t count their chickens just yet.

But why do local authorities start or invest in energy companies in the first place? Many do it for the same reasons as Bristol Energy which said it would “provide ethically sourced, low-cost energy and with the aim of returning a profit for council tax payers.” This would have been wonderful had it paid off; perhaps council tax bills would have been lower as a result?

Sadly this hasn’t happened and Bristol now has the third-highest band D council tax bill in the South West. Nottingham has the highest bill in the entire country. Similarly, Gateshead council – which owns Gateshead Energy Company and made total losses of £1.9 million – has the highest rates in the North East and ninth-highest in England. I could go on but you get the picture.

There is a glimmer of hope in the fact that of the 391 local authorities that responded to our freedom of information requests, 94 per cent did not own an energy company. For those authorities thinking about risking public money in this market they should heed our warnings. Their grand visions for publicly-owned energy companies that will supply cheaper energy and plough profits back into frontline services rarely materialise. Instead, many taxpayers are being left in the dark with failed firms and a big bill to boot.

Payne journeys through the Red Wall seats to discover how Labour lost them and Johnson won

18 Sep

Broken Heartlands: A Journey Through Labour’s Lost England by Sebastian Payne

The first thing Sebastian Payne prompted me to do was to order a copy of English Journey by J. B. Priestley. For Payne starts his book in Gateshead, where he grew up, and is sporting enough to quote what Priestley wrote about it in 1933:

“No true civilisation could have produced such a town, which is nothing better than a huge dingy dormitory.”

Payne is not a second Priestley. He is neither such a good writer, nor so rude. But he is a good investigative journalist, who wants to understand what happened in the Red Wall seats where the Conservatives made such inroads in 2019.

The term “Red Wall” was coined by the pollster James Kanagasooriam to describe seats which had never returned a Tory MP since 1997 (or in some cases since the Second World War); voted on average by 63 per cent for Brexit (compared to the national average of 52 per cent); had a substantial Labour majority during the 1990s; and also had a substantial minority Tory vote.

Four such seats went blue for the first time at the 2017 general election: Mansfield, North East Derbyshire, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, and Walsall North.

Thirty four went blue in 2019, and another 14 stayed in Labour hands. Payne quotes a Labour aide who says the 2019 result could have been even worse:

“We looked at the North and Midlands and thought the whole thing could just go, it could have been another Scotland for us.”

But to lose 34 seats is still pretty bad, and Payne sets out to discover what happened, and whether 2019 “was a fluke, or a realignment”.

His method is to visit ten Red Wall seats, each of which gets about 30 pages of text: Blyth Valley, North West Durham, Sedgefield, Wakefield, Don Valley, Great Grimsby, North East Derbyshire, Coventry North West, Heywood and Middleton, and Burnley.

In the course of his researches he interviews 120 people, including many former Labour MPs, often spoken to remotely, in part because of the pandemic. So we hear from Tony Blair, David Blunkett, David Miliband, Alan Johnson and many others.

In Blyth Valley, he meets Ronnie Campbell, former miner, Labour MP there from 1987-2019, when he retired because of a heart complaint; and Ian Levy, former mental health nurse, who proceeded to win the seat by 712 votes for the Conservatives.

Levy told Payne how he came to stand:

“We would often go out for a meal or a drink, me and my wife Maureen. On the wander back, when I’d had a few beers, I would start complaining about the state of the town centre: the state of the bus shelters, the feeling of despondency there was in the town where people feel really, really let down, and that their vote is taken for granted.

“I think she was happy to hear this, once, twice, maybe 30 times. But once it got to 40 or 50, she’d absolutely had enough. I remember this one night in particular she said, ‘Either do something about it or shut up.’ And I said, ‘Right, OK then.'”

The next day he told her he was going to stand for Parliament. His “gut feeling” took him towards the Conservatives, but he found there was no Conservative Association in Blyth Valley, so he wrote to David Cameron, explaining his passion for Blyth, the problems he had identified and how he intended to fix them.

Much to his and Maureen’s surprise, he received a positive reply, and in 2016 was invited to CCHQ for an interview, after which he became the prospective parliamentary candidate.

His first campaign, in the 2017 general election, was run with £500 donated by Matt Ridley, described by Payne as “the aristocratic science writer and libertarian campaigner based in Northumberland”.

Levy’s daughter and her friends distributed leaflets, and the Conservative vote rose to 15,855 (it had been 8,346 in 2015), but the genial Campbell was still well ahead, with 23,770 votes.

Two years later, the Conservative vote increased again, to 17,440, while Campbell’s successor fell back to 16,728. Levy in his second campaign had won a famous victory.

“One of the nuisances of the ballot,” Lord Salisbury once remarked, “is that when the oracle has spoken you never know what it means.”

There is a temptation, when seeking to explain what happened in the Red Wall seats, to pretend to greater knowledge than is actually possible.

It can be difficult enough to know what is going on inside one’s own head, let alone anyone else’s, as one makes up one’s mind how to vote. Here is Payne on his own decision in the EU Referendum of 2016:

“On both sides of my family, almost everyone voted Leave. I was deeply torn: my northern hinterland and instincts pulled me towards Brexit, but after twenty minutes in the polling booth, my head put a tick in the Remain column.”

One rejoices to find such a balanced outlook, such conscious doubt, in a reporter for a newspaper, The Financial Times, which expressed such dogmatic enthusiasm for remaining in the EU.

There is an overwhelming sense, in every place visited by Payne, of having seen better days. Great industries have collapsed,  so has the communal life which they engendered, and handsome town centres are left to rot.

Local pride is wounded at every turn by evidence of neglect, shoddiness and former greatness. The prosperous, of whom there are more than one might think, flee to houses on the periphery.

And as Payne explains, the Labour coalition has broken down:

“From its inception, the party was built on a Hampstead-to-Humberside electoral alliance, bridging metropolitan liberal voters, typified in the north London enclave, to the working-class voters in England’s working-class towns. Brexit annihilated this alliance, but Labour’s shift on other matters set the stage for the demise, according to Blair.”

Blair talks at considerable length to Payne. The ingenuity with which he justifies himself is impressive, and his self-righteousness is insufferable.

Nothing is ever Blair’s fault. Norman Tebbit, speaking from his office in the House of Lords, strikes a different note:

“There were mining communities in rural areas where there was very little other work. Unfortunately we could have run those mines down much more slowly. We could have done more to help to bring jobs to those areas. There was a deep and profound economic and social change that went on, which was adverse to those local people.”

One of the paradoxes of Payne’s account is that he talks to so many politicians, he does not always allow the voices of local people to be heard.

We instead get the generally rather bland language of professional politicians, discussing what to do about the Red Wall seats, what to do about Brexit, and still cut off from the people who in 2016 seized the chance to make their voice heard, administering a most tremendous shock to the metropolitan liberals who had ignored them for so long.

The weakness of Theresa May after the 2017 general election turned out to be a trap for the Remainers. Peter Mandelson tells Payne how Blair assembled a group of like-minded Labour figures and told them they had “a real opportunity” to get Leaver voters to think again.

After they had spent some time trying to persuade Leave voters that leaving was not such a great idea, Mandelson told Blair “We’re not gaining traction here”, but Blair would not accept this.

The People’s Vote campaigners were not thinking straight. As Mandelson says, the question of “what would be on the ballot paper of a second referendum…was insoluble”.

Labour, which in 2017 was still promising to implement the referendum result, ended up in a ridiculous position at the 2019 election, seen by Leave voters as an attempt to wriggle out of getting Brexit done, and Johnson won a thumping victory.

Johnson enters this book at the end, campaigning in May 2021 in the Hartlepool by-election, another famous Tory victory:

“With Jill Mortimer, the Tory candidate, he paced up the seafront in his trademark blue suit – sans coat, despite the weather. He was mobbed. Soon, the traffic piled up as every car stopped to point and shout, ‘Boris!’ He was the Pied Piper in the middle of a hurricane. He asked each voter he stopped to talk to if the party could count on their support. Bar some who were uncertain, every one answered in the affirmative. No one said they were backing Labour. The response was unlike any I have seen to any politician on the campaign trail, in any election: dozens of Hartlepudlians wanted selfies and elbow bumps with the Prime Minister. You cannot imagine David Cameron or Theresa May eliciting such a response.”

Payne later interviews Johnson:

“Recalling the scenes on the beach front, I asked why he felt he was so personally popular with working-class voters, despite his Eton and Oxford background? Was it that he was seen as an unconventional political insurgent? After running his hand through his mop of hair several times, Johnson said, ‘Look, it beats me.’ He appeared to be on the cusp of revealing more, before restraining himself. ‘It’s not about me, this is about this country.'”

Yes, it is about what kind of country we are, what kind of nation. And to cast light on that question, I hope another author, a latter-day Priestley, will make an English journey and spend more time talking to random members of the public, unimportant people.

Jacob Young: Conservatives must ensure their climate change goals are affordable for the consumer

1 Jul

Jacob Young is the Conservative MP for Redcar.

As Conservatives, we should be proud of the action we have taken in Government to combat climate change.

We have an unrivalled track record of success in protecting our environment, dating back to Margaret Thatcher being the first world leader to put climate change at the top of the agenda. It was also a Conservative government that led the world in being the first major economy to enshrine its net zero emissions target into law in 2019. When it comes to tackling climate change, Conservatives get things done.

Fast forward to the present day and the challenge of meeting net zero can be encapsulated by the task we have to decarbonise heat in our homes. The decarbonisation of heat is an area where net zero and levelling up are one and the same. Hydrogen for example, has the potential to create 75,000 new jobs by 2035 and should be part of the mosaic of heating solutions we need to meet our legally binding net zero commitments.

As the Government prepares to publish the Heat and Buildings Strategy, we must ensure that customers who are unable to switch away from their gas boilers straight away are not penalised. We currently have 23 million households across the country that rely upon a safe and affordable supply of gas to their homes and by punishing these customers, we would be failing to deliver a just energy transition.

Finding a cost-effective solution that is tailored to their needs and expectations will be one of the biggest challenges we face as a country over the next decade. As well as accelerating heat pump deployment, for many customers a potential solution could be a repurposed gas network that supplies hydrogen to heat their homes and plans are now gathering pace to make this a reality.

Inside the home, hydrogen will require no major home modifications with customers upgrading to a hydrogen ready boiler when their boiler reaches the end of its natural life. Installation could neatly dovetail into the yearly replacement of 1.6 million gas boilers that takes place in the UK.

Hydrogen ready boilers are already being developed by British manufacturers, with early estimates suggesting they will be £50 more expensive that gas boilers. The Government can stimulate demand for the market by mandating manufacturers to develop hydrogen ready boilers only by 2025, paving the way for full conversion away from gas.

Outside of the home, Britain’s gas networks are already two thirds of the way through a programme to replace old metal pipes with hydrogen-ready plastic piping. By 2032, the gas network will be fully hydrogen ready. Networks and appliance manufacturers have also been undertaking a series of projects to test how hydrogen behaves in a variety of different settings and environments.

From testing the blending up to 20 per cent of hydrogen into the existing gas grid to how we will transport 100 per cent renewable hydrogen from offshore wind turbines all the way to people’s living rooms with projects like HyDeploy, H21 and H100. These projects have shown that using our gas grid to deliver hydrogen for households to use for heating, hot water and cooking is fundamentally safe.

A trial beginning next year will bring hydrogen to the home of 300 customers in Fife, another trial in Redcar & Cleveland will demonstrate hydrogen in an existing gas network, and in Gateshead we have built the UK’s first houses with appliances fuelled entirely by hydrogen through the Government’s Hy4Heat program; all offering a glimpse at how our homes can be heated in the future.

We all recognise that achieving net zero is the right thing to do to make us cleaner, safer and healthier. It is also a tangible part of our levelling up agenda, as the right investment framework can enable the shoots of a green recovery to spearhead economic prosperity after Covid-19.

But this should not come at the expense of customers. We cannot punish those who have been reliant on their gas boilers for generations to be left with unaffordable costs to heat their homes in the future. Our policy decisions need to reflect the types of properties and needs customers have right across the country.

We are going to need both heat pumps and hydrogen to heat our homes in the future and following the publication of the Heat and Buildings Strategy, the Government should kick-start investment in the supply chain for low carbon technologies, to drive down costs and accelerate the conversion to net zero solutions.

To truly deliver a fair and just transition for customers, we need to level with them about the types of changes that will be required in all of our homes if we are to achieve net zero. The type of technology used to heat our homes isn’t as important as informing the public, building support for net zero and offering real choice about the solution that best suits each customer’s home.

We are the party of net zero and we now have an opportunity to follow through on our rich history of action by delivering a policy framework that enables all technologies to flourish.

Guy Opperman: In the North East, Labour’s Red Wall continues to crumble – here’s where we can win next

20 Jun

Guy Opperman is the Minister for Pensions and Financial Inclusion, and is MP for Tynedale and Ponteland.

During this year’s local elections, we saw seismic change in the North East of England. Hartlepool fell with a near 7,000 majority to Jill Mortimer. Ben Houchen secured 73 per cent in the Tees Valley. In County Durham, Northumberland and elsewhere, the Labour Party retreated.

I don’t think that is our high watermark. In May 2021, we solidified our 2019 general election successes in Blyth Valley, across County Durham and in Teesside – and we can do better.

It has taken time. When I was selected to be the Conservative candidate for Hexham at the 2010 General Election, it was the only Conservative-held seat in the North East. We gained over 100 seats in the 2010 election across the country, but only one new seat was gained in the North East. In 2015, Anne-Marie Trevelyan took the formerly ‘safe’ Liberal Democrat seat of Berwick, making it three.

However, our electoral success in the North East only started really to change in 2019. We gained seven seats – including Tony Blair’s old seat in Sedgefield. Following our Hartlepool victory, we now have 11 seats altogether.

However, there are opportunities for us to go even further, and to do so, we need real action, and determination over the coming years. Boundary changes may alter some seats, but this is how it presently stacks up.

In Northumberland, we now hold three of the four constituencies, and run the council on our own. As we head towards the next election, Wansbeck – the seat of Ian Lavery, an arch Corbynista – is well within our grasp. At the last election, Lavery clung on: but his majority was cut from over 10,000 to just 800.

In truth, he was lucky to hold the seat. We put most of our effort locally into winning the neighbourhood constituency of Blyth Valley but, in the May local elections, local Labour Councillors saw their majorities tumble. It will be for the new Conservative Council in Northumberland to deliver for local people, attracting major new employers to create jobs – building a new train line which will link Ashington and Blyth to Newcastle upon Tyne, and changing Northumberland for the better.

In County Durham, my southern neighbour Richard Holden has written on in ConservativeHome of the sea change in his constituency. I saw first-hand at the local election some of the amazing new Conservative councillors who are delivering for their communities. Richard will always be rightly famous for defeating Corbyn’s heir apparent, Laura Pidcock. In my view, no Labour seat in County Durham is safe. The remaining seats all have majorities under 6,000. There is a big change happening in Durham.

In Sunderland, Labour hold all three seats with majorities of less than 4,000, and in Sunderland Central (majority 2,964), the Conservatives topped the poll in the local elections.

Many of our recent gains came from the Tees Valley. Perhaps that’s no surprise. Ben Houchen is doing an incredible job in transforming Teesside – from delivering more jobs and investment, to saving the Airport, and more importantly projecting a ‘can do’ enthusiasm that all can see.

Ben’s landslide victory shows we can win in any part of Teesside. Both Stockton North and Middlesbrough now look very winnable. Even in Middlesbrough, a seat once so safe the former Labour MP lived in france most of the time, Ben Houchen won well over 60 per cent of the vote. And if Hartlepool can be won by nearly 7,000, anything is possible with work and a real commitment to bring change for the better.

We are making progress on Tyneside too. In a by-election in North Tyneside caused by the resignation of Kate Osborne, now a Labour MP, a local young campaigner showed local residents exactly what a hardworking local Conservative can achieve – and won, taking a safe Labour seat.

In Gateshead, Blaydon is another area with real potential. It is a seat that neighbours my own, and my sense is that Boris Johnson’s leadership and the Conservative message is resonating on the ground.

However, whilst there are many opportunities for success, we will only make progress in the North East if we continue to deliver the change people want to see. So how do we achieve that?

In 2012, as I recovered from my brain tumour, I did a four-week charity walk from Sheffield to Scotland – through what was then the Red Wall. I met people in pubs, mosques, bed and breakfasts, shops and at community events. I talked to people endlessly to get an understanding of the change people wanted to see.

Most of all, people wanted proper representation, with local champions fighting for better investment in schools and hospitals, improved public transport, and more job opportunities. That is exactly what the Government under Boris Johnson is doing. Key symbols of this that matter: like the relocation of part of the Treasury to Darlington, which will open up a world of opportunities for local young people, and play its part in ending the ‘London Centric’ culture that has existed for far too long.

In my own constituency since 2010 we have rebuilt all four high schools, refurbished a local hospital and invested heavily in our community. That is levelling up in action. By getting on with the job and delivering on the people’s priorities, there is a great future for the North East. The Labour Party is out of ideas and does not represent their heartlands. We must keep working, select candidates early, and make the case for conservatism in action.

Can we win more seats than the 11 we now hold? Yes, we can.

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.

Richard Holden: The Stockton South Test – and four others for Starmer, as the run-in for next week’s elections gathers pace

26 Apr

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

Malton Picnic area, Lanchester, Co Durham

Things are hotting up on the Northern Front. “Battleground North East” is anchored in public consciousness this year by the Hartlepool by-election: what should be a safe Labour seat appears less than solid due, frankly, to the sheer uselessness of the current Labour leadership.

But who will win? Well it feels like it’s closer than it should on the ground, and there’s no way on god’s green earth that the Prime Minister would have made multiple visits if there wasn’t at least an outside chance.

But Keir Starmer faces more than just Hartlepool in his Red Wall test in the North East this bumper election year (due to the delays from last year), with the Hartlepool by-election just one of a swath of big battles.

After a year in office, Sir Keir has moved beyond the ‘not Corbyn but unknown’ era, and these elections are his biggest – and realistically only – massive test ahead of the next general election. Is he cutting through? Polls say lots of different things, but in the end it’s election results that you really can’t spin and I’ve outlined a few scenarios

  • Keir on Course = Starmer is well ahead of Corbyn and can look forward to rebuilding in the North. All 2019 Conservative MPs are under threat.
  • So-So Starmer: he makes some progress, but there’s a lot more to do. The Blue Wall will be down to the wire at the next general election ,with CCHQ looking at the most marginal seats (such as Wansbeck) for attack, and a broad based defence.
  • Knightmare: Corbyn performed better than Starmer. Labour heading to be a city-centre only party of student politics. CCHQ will be looking to defend the most marginal Blue Wall seats and looking for gains in places like Sunderland, Gateshead and Middlesborough. Labour will be in open warfare.

Starmer’s five big tests

1) Tees Valley Mayoralty

Ben Houchen squeezed in in 2017 on a 21.3 per cent turnout with just 39.5 per cent of votes in the first round (just 481 votes more than Labour), winning in just two of the five boroughs. Literally, fewer than one in ten voters went for Houchen in 2017. All Labour need to do is get their vote to turn out, and they’ll win. If it had been held on the same day as the 2017 general election, Labour would have won easily. This should be a shoe-in for Starmer, but Houchen is fighting hard and has gained local notoriety as a bit of a fighter for Teesside.

  • Keir on Course: Labour gain with 50 per cent of the vote in first round.
  • So-so Starmer: Labour win Tees Valley mayorality.
  • Knightmare: Houchen wins re-election with an increased majority

2) Northumberland County Council.

You think of Holy Island and Hadrian’s Wall. The truth is that 75 per cent of Northumberland’s population is within a ten-miles or so of the border with the really rock solid Labour City of Newcastle. The Council has been No Overall Control, but run by a minority Conservative administration since 2017. If Labour can take it back, they’ll do so by taking seats back in the Blyth/Wansbeck Parliamentary constituencies and piling on votes in towns. Look out for results in South East Ashington, Hartley, and Purdhoe: they are all central to this battle.

  • Keir on Course: Taking back Northumberland with a majority administration
  • So-so Starmer: Labour become the largest party, taking back towns and performing well in South East Northumberland.
  • Knightmare: Tories retain power in NoC Council. If by some miracle the Conservatives gained the council, this would be catastrophic for Starmer, and suggest that under his leadership Labour will do significantly worse than Corbyn.

Top tip – Watch out for the Greens in some seats here. If the radical enviro-socialists perform well in some areas it could help galvanise the Labour left.

3) Hartlepool By-Election.

Held by Labour despite a very high Brexit vote by over 3,500 votes on a sub-60 per cent turnout in 2019. Should be absolutely rock-solid Labour, and Corbyn held it by 8,000 in 2017. The fact that it’s in contention at all is astonishing. Starmer has worked hard to distance himself from his very heavily pro-EU stance, but we’ll see if voters are as quick to forget as he’d like.

  • Keir on course: Labour returned with majority of similar proportions + to Corbyn’s in 2017.
  • So-So Starmer: Labour hold the seat with a majority similar to 2019 on a lower turnout.
  • Knightmare : Labour perform worse than in 2019 or even lose. This shows that the Brexit voters who left Labour in 2019 aren’t returning to Labour en-masse, but are instead going Conservative. This would be a disaster and points to the Tories being able to really push further and deeper in the North.

4) County Durham.

Held by Labour since 1919 and with a good majority of about a dozen in 2017 in the really terrible 2017 council elections for Labour. This is the heartland of the industrial Labour vote. But the Conservatives gained three MPs of the county’s six MPs here in 2019, the more marginal seat of Bishop Auckland, and Sedgefield and North West Durham (my constituency). For the PCVC election, add Darlington to the mix. Traditionally, Labour has always outperformed in the local elections by 10 per cent compared to the general election, so this should be an easy hold of the council with gains possible in places like: Crook (a three seat ward currently one Labour, 2 independent), Newton Aycliffe, and Barnard Castle East (currently two Conservatives, which has been heavily targeted by Labour).

  • Keir on course = Labour hold the PCVC and County Council with an increased majority, taking a number of “Independent”, Liberal Democray and some Conservative seats – including Barnard Castle East.
  • So-So Starmer = Labour hold the Council and PCVC, picking up a few extra seats – especially from the Lib Dems in City of Durham and in North Durham (Chester-Le-Street) from Conservatives and Independents.
  • Knightmare = Labour hold the council by a wafer thing margin or, in the worst case, lose control of the Council for the first time in 102 years, with Conservatives making progress against Labour and Labour- leaning ‘Independents’ in places like: Delves Lane (Consett, NW Durham, currently two Labour), Evenwood (Bishop Auckland, currently one Lab, one Con), and holding seats in North Durham that were gained by small margins in 2017.

5) The “Stockton South Test”.

Stockton South was gained by Corbyn in 2017, but lost in 2019. There are a five Council by-elections this year with Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Independents defending. Labour will be looking to making big gains in these seats (which were last fought on the date of the 2019 General Election) to see it in play for the next general election.

  • Keir on Course: Vote Share looks much better than 2017 from these results with Labour gaining most of these seats.
  • So-so Starmer: Starmer picks up a couple of these seats with vote shares similar to 2017.
  • Knightmare: Labour only gain one seat or none in what amounts to a re-run of the 2019 election showing that Starmer is underperforming Corbyn’s 2017 result.

– – –

Having been on the ground in North West Durham during the last few weeks, it’s clear that Labour are moving heaven and earth locally, with voters now facing a “Labour Versus Conservative” battle in most council seats that had traditionally been more of an open contest.

Having knocked on hundreds of doors, Starmer is rarely mentioned unprompted. When asked “what do you think of the new Labour leader?” – then “Brexit” ,as well as being associated with Corbyn at the last election, are the only things that are mentioned.

He certainly isn’t “cutting through, and where he has made an impact, it certainly isn’t to popular acclaim. One politically switched on (and furious) family who voted Lib Dem at the last general election (formerly Labour because they couldn’t stand Corbyn) that I met in Lanchester Ward this time are now “probably conservatives” after seeing the vaccine programme rollout going well.

Their 22 year old son (who was pro-Remain at the time, but too young to vote, and who is now is glad we’ve left) and works locally said that Starmer’s attacks during the pandemic showed him to be a “typical opportunistic London lawyer happy to cash in on any argument about anything.”

If Starmer is to avoid the “Knightmare” then it will be down to motivated left-wing Labour activists getting out their party’s base in a low turnout set of elections, rather than any enthusiasm for Labour’s leader. And if so, however Starmer’s spinners from Southside present the outcome, they’ll still be shackled to the same problems in a general election as they faced in 2019.

Darren Grimes: The frustration, bafflement and despair that the lockdown is forcing on my family and friends in the North-East

7 Oct

Darren Grimes is a political commentator and is content creator at Reasoned UK.

I feel the need, somewhat depressingly, to preface this piece by saying that I am no denier of Covid-19.  I do not believe that it is some grand conspiracy involving billionaire philanthropists such as Bill Gates, or lizard men; like most others, I got on board with the original nationwide lockdown until we could build up healthcare resilience, mask wearing and social distancing.

I believ thate deaths from this virus matter. I just don’t believe they matter more, or less, than any other deaths. As three eminent epidemiologists that advocate a different approach have said elsewhere, our current lockdown policies are producing devastating effects on short and long-term public health, such as:

“Lower childhood vaccination rates, worsening cardiovascular disease outcomes, fewer cancer screenings and deteriorating mental health – leading to greater excess mortality in years to come, with the working class and younger members of society carrying the heaviest burden.”

It’s that last part which struck me the most. Each generation of my family in the North-East (I grew up in Consett, County Durham) is now united in their opposition to the current restrictions. For a moment, it looked as though my 86-year-old nana was ready to take a pitchfork to Westminster upon hearing that bingo was closing again. My mother works in higher education, and doesn’t know if she’s coming and going most days. My two younger siblings are left feeling a sense of hopeless and despair that I am not ashamed to admit brings me close to tears.

And for what? We’ve seen that some of the biggest spikes in cases are in places with some of our countries biggest universities, such as Exeter, Nottingham, Manchester and, of course, Newcastle. But surely the Government knew that this problem was coming, and could have prepared for the eventuality of students heading to the North East for the next academic year?

The unspoken tragedy for my friends, at a time when we hear so much about white privilege, is that it is the working class and younger members of society, regardless of skin colour, that are carrying the heaviest burden of our response to Covid-19. So it’s the North East’s young people that will suffer as a consequence of this whack-a-mole lockdown strategy.

Both of my siblings, one of whom has just started a degree in Newcastle, supported the Conservatives last year, in their first election in which they were entitled to vote. Both of them are exactly what the levelling-up agenda should be about. But they’re current both unemployed – with he youngest receiving precious little in-person teaching as part of his first year at university. So this lockdown strategy reminds us just how out-of-touch policymakers are when it comes to the North East.

We hear a lot about the Red Wall as though it were one homogenous mass. The North East itself covers a huge area – from densely populated industrial parts to sparsely populated ones containing more sheep than people. The North East is much more than Newcastle, Sunderland and Gateshead. Yet the lockdown measures that have been put in place don’t currently reflect this and feel really unfair to some.

Under the rumoured “three-tier” system to simplify lockdown rules in England, the country would see just three sets of rules and restrictions. Tier one would apply to areas with fewer than 100 cases per 100,000 population, meaning they’d have to stick to national restrictions. And tier three would apply to areas with high rates, and so would see full lockdowns imposed. Under this scenario, my County Durham family would see the rules that apply to them relaxed.

Many of my friends and family tell me that they’re at their wits’ end. In June, I went back home for the funeral of my youngest aunt, and the family were, naturally, a bit cautious that I was travelling up from London for it, and asked that I keep away from my grandmother.

My grandmother, true to herself, was having absolutely none of it, and fumed at the idea that her agency should be stripped from her, and that she be unable to hug her grandson at such a time. At the funeral itself, my mother sat with my hurting grandmother and refused to sit away from her: it was the right thing to do for both of us.

A video of a similar scene in which this wasn’t allowed to happen has gone viral online. For many this highlights the  cruelty in our rules which say that it’s fine to sit next to your elderly mother on public transport, but not at a funeral. These deeply human tragedies highlight the perniciousness and inconsistencies.

I’ve had conversations with several older friends and family members, of a similar age to a certain American President, who make clear thatm whilst they reckon they’re in decent enough nick to survive the virus as our understanding of it grows, they’re too terrified to leave the house fearing that they’ll get some new rule or regulation wrong. They fear a bankrupting fine or, worse, that one of their neighbours that has taken it upon themselves to become the town prefect.

Voters in the North East just want to know if they’re coming or going. They want rules that are proportionate for the threat that we face and they don’t want to see, whatever the risk that they may or may not pose, the livelihoods and life chances of their nearest and dearest destroyed in the most disproportionate way possible.

I’m afraid, Boris Johnson, that the promise of a few wind turbines by 2030 simply won’t soften the hammer blow to the life chances of our region’s young.