Graham Robb's column in the Journal May 2021

Graham Robb's column in the Journal May 2021


My firm advertised a job recently, which interested numerous local candidates. However, the weekend after the hugely successful election results for Conservatives in the North of England, I returned to work to find my in-box littered with applicants from London.

This demonstrates a breakthrough in the way professionals in the City are starting to look at our region. The levelling-up agenda is something that people around the UK understand, and they know it is going on in the North East.

There is every reason to believe the ‘brain drain’ can be staunched. The Government is making a real attempt to do so, and just last Friday Boris Johnson was on the record explaining that his hope is the massive Treasury campus in Darlington would not just see officials re-deployed from London but the recruitment and training of skilled workers from the North East. By the way, Boris Johnson is now a regular visitor here, so much so that voters in the South might start to ask questions. In the last two years I can count around ten visits – one every couple of months. Apart from Tony Blair, who had a constituency here, I can’t think of any Prime Minister in my lifetime who has paid us more attention.

Which brings me to the new political landscape of the region. Keir Starmer has not proved the type of Labour leader that can inspire North East voters. Labour’s loss of Northumberland Council, the Hartlepool by-election, the end of a Labour majority in County Durham, and the fact that in South Shields and Sunderland numerous seats switched to the Conservatives, all provide real world evidence that Conservative values of enterprise, hard work, positivity and opportunity chime with the North East electorate in 2021, compared with the stale, negative and divisive values of socialism, especially the metropolitan, woke, brand of socialism on offer from the current Labour Party.

Labour lost its support in the North East for many reasons, the three ‘B’s’ among them: Boris, Brexit and Ben.

Boris connects with voters, it is true that he inspires hatred from his enemies, but this causes them to get personal and waste their energy on playing the man not the ball. Last month, instead of discussing the common-sense policies that people want, Boris’ critics just talked about decorations in Downing Street. Meanwhile Boris is offering Freeports, new rail lines, Treasury jobs, vaccines, and is connecting in person with voters in our region.

Next there is Brexit, apart from Newcastle all our region voted for Brexit. I voted remain, but quickly realised that the voters’ verdict needs to be respected. Boris has started to demonstrate the advantages of Brexit at a time that his Labour opponents can’t even bring themselves to utter the word. ‘Ignore Brexit’ is the mantra of the opposition, but Boris is saying to the North East, ‘you made the right decision, let’s make it work’. The vaccine programme, which was delivered after the break from the EU’s EMA, has proved to everybody there are advantages to Brexit, just as Freeports and local content requirements for big infrastructure programmes will prove advantageous to some business sectors

Finally, there is Ben, as in Ben Houchen. Ben, who I have the privilege of working with as a member of various public boards in Tees Valley, has demonstrated that confident hard working Conservatives do have something to offer. His success is seen by the public in every area of the country. Given he has made such a difference here, previous Labour voters elsewhere felt confident in switching to the Conservatives. Even soft left commentators, like Will Hutton of the Observer, were willing to say out loud that Ben’s approach “has imagination, verve and a vision” and that “Houchenism is a threat to Thatcherites, Blairites and Corbynites alike. It could even win 73% of the vote across Britain.”

The reaction of Labour to this defeat is inglorious and ugly. Some Labour supporters have written to this newspaper calling Hartlepool voters stupid, elsewhere one senior Labour Councillor said “the voters have let us down.”

Sir Kier Starmer was rattled too, he promised to take "full responsibility" himself. Then he had moved Angela Rayner. Given Labour's lack of ability to reach out to northern voters, it didn't seem logical to pick on a northern working-class woman. Will people of the left ever understand the personal popularity of Boris Johnson? As commentator Iain Dale said: “In 2008 Ken Livingstone underestimated him and in 2012, and lived to regret it. Labour have done this at every election since. They sneer at people who vote for him without trying to understand why. "It's not us, it's you," they seem to be saying to voters.”

I have spent years fighting for the Conservative cause in the North East, I got used to coming up against people who were naturally Conservative in their thinking but unwilling to break with generations of cultural support for Labour. Now, most of the last bastions of solid Labour support have fallen and the North East will be forever contested by national political leaders. We will all benefit as a result and not taken for granted again.

Footnote: Readers will be pleased to read that I intend to appoint a candidate from the North East to the vacancy I advertised!

back to blog