Labourism and the Local: The Situation on Teesside

Labour's recent struggles in some of its former post-industrial heartlands indicate long-term weaknesses of Labourism itself.

Labour on Teesside was left reeling twice within the space of three weeks after electoral defeats in May 2019. In a region which voted overwhelmingly to leave the European Union in 2016, it came as little surprise when the Brexit Party romped home in the European elections on May 23rd; the local council elections held three weeks earlier, however, led to defeat of a more shocking order, as the party was crushed in some of its longest and safest strongholds.

Much post-election analysis has focused on the party’s ambiguity on Brexit, and while this was certainly a key factor, the elections also highlighted a number of other weaknesses in the party’s approach, locally and nationally, which are long-term features of Labourism itself. As a Labour candidate and former party worker myself, I’ve encountered many of these limitations first hand (and admittedly been complicit in some of them). In what follows, I attempt to explore some of the challenges currently facing the Labour Party in places like Teesside, and the prospects for addressing them in the coming period.


The results of the local council elections on Teesside were disappointing in some areas and calamitous in others. In Middlesbrough, where Labour considered itself almost untouchable, the party was routed by Independent candidates, losing 12 of 32 councillors and ceding control of the borough for the first time since its creation in 1974. In neighbouring Redcar and Cleveland, Labour lost sitting councillors in solidly working class wards like Southbank and Teesville, while a similar story unfolded in Thornaby, part of Stockton-on-Tees, where the party again lost to a clean sweep of Independents. By close of play, the party had lost control of four of the Tees Valley’s five local authorities (including Darlington and Hartlepool), further empowering Conservative ‘Metro Mayor’ Ben Houchen, who won his position as head of the Tees Valley Combined Authority in similar circumstances in May 2017.

Indeed, just as in Houchen’s hour of victory in May 2017, turnout in May 2019 was shockingly low in traditional Labour wards: in Middlesbrough’s Brambles Farm and Thorntree, for example, it was just 18 per cent, while in nearby Berwick Hills and Pallister it was 22. Why? In the most immediate sense, people were clearly disillusioned by politics per se – in particular, perhaps, Labour’s fudge on Brexit provoking more apathy than rage – while in a wider sense they were probably uninspired by what were perceived as low-stakes, inconsequential elections with limited significance.

Inevitably, some party members have also pointed to the unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn as a factor in the defeat, just as they did a few weeks before Labour’s astonishing performance in the General Election of 2017. But as pollster John Curtice previously noted, Corbyn is divisive rather than unpopular, and in any case it is far from clear how Labour’s core vote on Teesside would have been any more inspired to vote by either an alternative leader or a more forceful campaign to ‘Remain’ in the EU, especially given the clear majority for Brexit in the area.

Furthermore, the effects of the low turnout were uneven – most Labour councillors in Stockton and Billingham, for example, retained their seats comfortably – and the main beneficiaries of Labour’s collapse in other areas were not UKIP, the Tories or the Brexit Party, but instead self-styled Independents. Indeed, while low turnout made Labour candidates more susceptible to defeat, in places where losses actually occurred the decisive trigger was often the presence of strong Independent challengers who tapped into long-building resentment against Labour councils perceived to be complacent and ineffective. In this sense, austerity certainly played a role, but more decisive was the character of Labour’s local opposition.

‘Independents’ Day’

In Middlesbrough, where the political earthquake shook hardest, Labour were defeated by a popular insurgency led by (of all people) a millionaire ex-financial trader from the City of London. The irony was that Andy Preston might well have been Labour’s dream-ticket had the year been 2002: after all, when New Labour introduced directly elected mayors, they were envisaged by Tony Blair as a mechanism for integrating the party more closely with big business (with Blair’s preferred candidate for London being Richard Branson). In this respect, ‘Andy Preston for Middlesbrough’ ticked all the right boxes: formerly a stockbroker and hedge fund manager, philanthropist Preston was described as a “loyal supporter of the Labour Party” as recently as 2018. But since quitting the party several years ago, Preston has emerged as the main source of opposition to Middlesbrough Labour in recent years, and came within a whisker of winning the mayoral contest in 2015; now, in the more fortuitous circumstances of May 2019, Preston romped to victory with nearly 60 per cent of the vote.

Preston made his millions in the City of London at the height of the global financial boom which saw fifteen years of continuous economic growth in the UK between 1992 and 2007. He moved back to the North East permanently in 2008, the same year the financial system came crashing down under a mountain of private debt, and in the midst of the Tory-led austerity which followed, Preston launched the Middlesbrough and Teesside Philanthropic Foundation, founded in 2011. Through this and a number of highly visible community initiatives, Preston was cast in the role of home-grown saviour, plugging the gaps left by cuts to services implemented by Middlesbrough’s Labour council at the behest of George Osborne.

By 2019, Preston had been photographed with practically every charity and community project in Middlesbrough. He’d also amassed a broad coalition of supporters which included business leaders, charity workers, community activists, environmental campaigners, Tories, liberals, and even socialists who saw in Preston something of a working class tradition of voluntary self-help and mutual aid. Preston and his supporters ridiculed Labour councillors for being secretive and lazy, and crowed about his ability to attract private investment to the town with his experience in property development and global finance. In true populist style, Preston wasn’t above pandering to racists either, in April attributing “horrific gang violence” in Middlesbrough town centre to “a recent wave of immigration that’s causing problems in TS1”. Yet still Preston retained the support of some BAME and refugee community leaders, drawing on the extensive reserves of political capital amassed through years of charity work and philanthropy.

Election Day on 2nd May was thus cast as ‘Independents Day’ and styled as a rebellion against the local Labour establishment led by Preston himself. Labour’s modest achievements in local government – including landlord licensing and bringing some semi-privatised services back in-house – were overlooked during a campaign in which the charismatic Preston made all the running, at one point even alluding to Labour’s ‘Preston Model’ as part of his own agenda for Middlesbrough. By contrast, Middlesbrough Labour Party’s campaign attracted mockery for its focus on Preston’s home being in distant Northallerton, which did little to dampen local people’s enthusiasm for another home-grown millionaire in the mould of football magnate Steve Gibson. And so, for the fourth time in five mayoral elections since 2002, the Labour Party in Middlesbrough took a drubbing; this time, however, with turnout at a historic low, many of its councillors met the same fate.

Permanent austerity

The Independents who coasted to victory across Teesside on 2nd May ultimately benefited from the same crisis of neoliberal modernity which has held Britain in its grip for well over a decade, resulting in a level of political volatility and unpredictability not seen in Britain since the 1970s. While many local Labour politicians have found themselves caught in the crosshairs through no fault of their own, it is also true that the crises of 2015-19 have exposed the conservatism of local Labour parties which have struggled to adapt to the rapidly changing social, cultural and political conditions of Britain in the 2010s, a country unrecognisable from that of the party’s last electoral heyday in the late 90s and 2000s. It also means there is deep denial about the origins of the current crisis – and, more pressingly, Labour’s own role in it – which hinders the party’s ability to respond to setbacks like those experienced in May.

Between 2010 and 2015, Labour’s national response to austerity was a combination of prevarication and weary acceptance. Labour councils on Teesside implemented Tory cuts in the face of only limited and sporadic resistance from the local labour movement, and in doing so added to a sense that a vote for Labour achieved little other than a minor tinkering around the edges of Tory austerity. Added to this was the pent-up rage of a population for whom austerity had been a way of life for decades: the social democratic gains of the New Labour years, after all, were predicated on a debt-fuelled financial boom which saw many parts of Teesside permanently and necessarily marginalised; in 1998, the newly appointed Governor of the Bank of England famously admitted that job losses in the North East were a price worth paying to curb inflation in the South, and while New Labour achievements like Sure Start, tax credits and the minimum wage provided some respite, the essentials of the post-Thatcher settlement stayed intact. The result was that many local people remained stuck throughout the 2000s in what researchers called “the low pay, no pay cycle”, a hallmark of the post-industrial economy.

All the while, enthusiasm for the Labour Party dwindled. Turnout and vote-share declined throughout New Labour’s period in office, and in Middlesbrough voters elected Independent mayors in 2002, 2007 and again in 2011. Ministers famously banked on the fact that voters in places like Teesside had “nowhere else to go”; as if to prove the point, between 1983 and 2012 Middlesbrough returned to Parliament a Labour politician who rarely visited the town and was dubbed by one newspaper “Britain’s laziest MP” – and yet he was knighted by Blair for services to Parliament.

By the time it was ejected from power in 2010, the command-and-control approach of New Labour had seen the party ideologically hollowed out, unable to make sense of the world around it, and essentially moribund at a local level, with many ward branches lying dormant altogether. The vote for Brexit did not come out of a clear blue sky, yet many longstanding Labour members were shell-shocked by it; just as they were shell-shocked by the election of Corbyn in 2015, the victory of Trump in 2016, and the local election meltdown of May 2019.

Whose Labour Party?

The experience of Corbynism has been an especially jarring one for many longer-term Labour members since 2015. As a pre-2015 recruit to the Labour Party, I’ve seen this from what feels like an especially peculiar vantage point: having joined the Party in late 2012, after becoming disillusioned with the petty sectarianism of the anti-capitalist left, I subsequently moved towards the party’s ‘soft left’, only to move leftwards again with the ascendency of Corbyn (and especially after the failed coup against him in 2016). My formative political years had been the early-to-mid 2000s, when I hated almost everything New Labour stood for – especially, as a youth worker supporting refugees in Middlesbrough, its brutal record on asylum at home and its catastrophic record of military aggression abroad. But by 2013, desperate to dislodge the Coalition government from power in the most immediate sense possible (and with the party in seemingly healthier shape under Ed Miliband), I plunged myself into door-knocking and leafletting for the local Labour Party. Shortly after, in an even more unlikely turn of events, an opportunity arose to work as a constituency caseworker for my local Labour MP, and it was one I couldn’t turn down.

Working for an MP was a terrific experience: the MP in question was hugely supportive, my colleagues were lovely, and the casework could be extremely interesting and rewarding. But it was also a profound political culture-shock: having come from an anti-capitalist milieu bursting with radical ideas and energy, I was now in an environment where democratic engagement extended no further than Parliament or the council chamber. For the first time in my life I met people under the age of 30 who were pursuing politics as a career, whose heroes were Tony Blair and the Clintons, and whose politics were sometimes unapologetically anti-socialist. I also met Labour councillors who, although wholly dedicated to serving their local patch, seemed to view local politics more as an administrative/managerial duty than a site of ideological struggle, which was an eye-opener in its own right.

To use Jeremy Gilbert’s phrase, the party I’d joined felt very much like the “corporate social responsibility” wing of British capitalism, which was about as good as it got in 2013. At a local level, it seemed every bit as hierarchical as Hilary Wainwright described in the 1980s: members were the “troops”, councillors were the “officer class” and MPs had an “almost untouchable quality … as if in swearing the Royal oath they gain a little of the reflected glamour of royalty.” The party also seemed intensely suspicious of any political activity which took place outside its own structures, and seemed to disavow the role of extra-parliamentary activism almost entirely. Indeed, I would later learn from researching the party’s history that this was Labour’s modus operandi – and exactly why the influx of new members I was personally so excited about in 2015 was a source of such anxiety to many older members.

Education and mobilisation

For all its electoral dominance on Teesside, the most apposite description of the Labour Party’s presence in the area is provided in the following quotation from historian David Coates, writing of the Party’s national fortunes in the mid-1980s:

Labour has never established what we could call — in a Gramscian sense — a hegemonic relationship with its own electoral base; and it certainly is not doing so now. Even in its heyday the Labour Party never created an extensive and sophisticated socialist universe — of newspapers, clubs, communities and institutions — within which to fuse itself to its people. It never created a labour movement in anything other than name. Instead of consolidating a strong class movement behind it, to sustain its radicalism in office, the Labour Party in the past was satisfied merely to establish an episodic and ephemeral relationship between itself and its people, a relationship wholly mediated through the pursuit and registering of the vote.

My own experience tells me the kind of approach advocated by New Left writers like Coates is anathema to many traditionalists, whose formative thinking was shaped by the long years of opposition in the 1980s and the corporate-style victories of 1997, 2001 and 2005. Added to this is the conservative culture of Labourism on Teesside which has long been a stronghold of the party’s right, having given the world not just two founding members of the SDP (namely Bill Rodgers and Ian Wrigglesworth), but also the irascible Tom Blenkinsop, whose locally influential trade union Community – formerly the Iron and Steel Trades Federation – has a long history of right-wing factionalising, including under the stewardship of Hartlepool-born Bill Sirs in the 1980s.

Nevertheless, there are still many grounds for hope. Despite the conservative habits bred by the party’s fixation on elections (and I’m afflicted by some of those too) there are spurts of creativity and innovation among activists which point to the possibility of CLPs and branches becoming, in Panitch and Leys’ words, “centres of education and mobilisation, oriented to an alternative way of life”. This isn’t all the work of Corbynistas, but the best of it is. In Stockton in the last year there have been pop-up exhibitions on local labour and industrial history, pamphlets on the area’s radical history, regular public meetings with films and speakers (drawing audiences of 60+ people), and a high-profile commemoration of local anti-fascist history. It is high time support and training for such initiatives became firmly embedded in formal party structures.

With Labour out of power in four of the Tees Valley’s five local authorities, we should take inspiration from the words of Ralph Miliband: “There is no inherent virtue in opposition; but it is all too easy to exaggerate the virtues of office… Politics, lots of people need to learn again, are not exclusively electoral.” There is no shortage of innovation and creativity in the half a million-strong Labour Party of 2019, and these need to be actively sought, encouraged and cultivated. That is how Labour will win again on Teesside, and how it will transform the country as a whole.