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Can Sir Keir Starmer make the North East a Labour stronghold again?

Sir Keir Starmer Credit: PA

The climax of the Labour leadership race has been overshadowed by the coronavirus crisis. The final hustings and announcement event were cancelled, with Sir Keir Starmer's widely-expected victory made official via email this morning.

His first priority is leading constructive questioning of the government's handling of the pandemic. He may face a big decision over whether to join a national unity government if the situation worsens in the weeks and months ahead.

I want to look towards the longer term, though, if I may. Sir Keir's task is rebuilding the so-called 'Red Wall' of old Labour heartlands, so many of which fell to the Conservatives at the general election.

Many lifelong Labour voters could not stomach the thought of sending Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street, and instead went with Boris Johnson and his promise to 'Get Brexit Done'. In the North East, seven seats turned blue: Blyth Valley, North West Durham, Bishop Auckland, Sedgefield, Darlington, Stockton South and Redcar.

Sir Keir will need to win most, if not all, of them back if he is to become Prime Minister. Among his pledges during the leadership contest was: "Never lose sight of the votes ‘lent’ to the Tories in 2019."

At first glance his appeal to traditional working-class Labour voters, and to Leave supporters, seems limited. A Remainer who, as Shadow Brexit Secretary, pushed his party towards their disastrous second referendum stance. Another London MP, with a knighthood and a posh voice.

He has been keen to emphasise, though, that his father was a toolmaker, his mother a nurse. They named him after Labour's first parliamentary leader Keir Hardie.

His campaign launch video highlighted how, as a young lawyer, "Keir stood in solidarity with workers and trade unions" in the 1980s and 1990s. He went on to lead the Crown Prosecution Service before becoming an MP - his knighthood is for services to law and criminal justice.

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The fact that his leadership campaign was chaired by Jenny Chapman, who lost her job as MP for Darlington in December, appears to have been an acknowledgement of the importance of reconnecting with our region. She has pointed to him having "bucketloads of experience" and said it's "patronising" to think that northern voters need a leader with a northern accent.

His two final rivals in the leadership race, Rebecca Long-Bailey and Lisa Nandy, are both from the North West. We don't have a regional breakdown of how Sir Keir secured overall victory, but we know he gained 17 out of 29 Constituency Labour Party nominations in the North East.

Houghton and Sunderland South MP Bridget Phillipson could now be in line for a shadow cabinet position. Wansbeck MP and Corbyn ally Ian Lavery's days as Labour Party chairman are likely to be numbered, although Sir Keir's pitch to party members was about mending splits within the Labour movement.

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He has vowed to keep pursuing policies like nationalising rail and energy. When it comes to tackling regional inequalities, his pledges include: "Push power, wealth and opportunity away from Whitehall. A federal system to devolve powers - including through regional investment banks and control over regional industrial strategy. Abolish the House of Lords - replace it with an elected chamber of regions and nations."

That's perhaps more than the Conservatives have set out. But 'levelling up' the country is a good Tory slogan, and a key part of their agenda for government. They have an energetic new batch of MPs here determined to make a difference.

Labour are of course a long way from having been wiped out in the region, but longstanding loyalties are disappearing. Many voted Conservative through gritted teeth though.

So the North East is very much in play.

Hopefully the coronavirus crisis will soon be behind us, for many reasons more important than this, but Johnson v Starmer promises to be fascinating over the next few years.