Sir Keir Starmer and the North East - opportunity and peril

Tom Wilkinson/PA Wire/PA Images
Sir Keir Starmer speaking to young people in Sunderland in April 2022. Credit: Tom Wilkinson/PA Images

Not only did Sir Keir Starmer's campaign trip up to the North East at the end of April 2021 result in the 'beergate' saga, but his party also suffered bitter election defeats in Hartlepool and County Durham a few days later.It's presumably not a visit he looks back on too fondly, or will be too keen to repeat, especially after Friday's news that he is now under police investigation. But, as the same day's local election results demonstrate again, any road to Downing Street will surely have to lead through our region.

Sheer maths means that Labour gains in London will only get them so far. Starmer needs to win back a fair few 'Red Wall' seats, and he's clearly been working on his patriotic ordinary-man appeal.

Local elections are not the same as general elections, but of course they matter along the way, to build a sense of momentum if nothing else.

Strong in some other parts of the UK, Labour's results on Friday look pretty underwhelming in the North East. A few seats lost to the Lib Dems and Greens across Tyne and Wear, nothing gained in Hartlepool. It's hardly the signs of an inexorable rise to power.

But at least it seems Starmer has now stopped the rot.

Under Corbyn, Labour lost control of four Teesside councils in May 2019, then lost seven MPs in the region at the general election that December.

Under Starmer last May, they lost that high-profile Hartlepool parliamentary by-election, and the majority on Durham County Council which they'd held for a century.

This week, Sunderland was under threat after nearly 50 years in Labour's control. Starmer has visited twice over the last couple of months - and his party held on pretty easily, letting slip just one seat.

The Tyneside councils are still very comfortable for them. They are on the defensive because they have so many seats there, and the last time many of them were contested was 2018 and a high base.

At next year's local elections, and the next general election when it comes, they will have things to attack in the North East.

The likelihood of Starmer still being Labour's leader has surely diminished though.

On Friday afternoon Durham Police said they had received "significant new information" and are now investigating what happened at Labour's office in Durham that evening last April. They mentioned they had left it until after the election to make the announcement.

Starmer later said he was "confident there was no breach of the rules", and of course he could well be cleared.

If he was fined though, it's difficult to see how he could stay in post, given how he has repeatedly called for the resignation of the Prime Minister and Chancellor after they were given fixed penalty notices.

For a politician who has defined himself as responsible and decent, it's hard to see how he could retain credibility.

Our region could ultimately offer him real opportunity, but only if he survives this real peril.