Labour seize new territory in North East and North Yorkshire

Kim McGuinness, Ben Houchen and David Skaith were all victorious in this week's Mayoral elections Credit: ITV Tyne Tees / PA

The North East and North Yorkshire have been the centre of things once again when it comes to the local elections.

Rishi Sunak came to the Tees Valley on Friday afternoon, to make the most of an isolated Conservative bright spot thanks to Ben Houchen winning a third term as mayor.

Keir Starmer, meanwhile, went to the Prime Minister’s own constituency, to bask in Labour candidate David Skaith’s victory in the York and North Yorkshire mayoral election.

That is traditional Tory turf and an example of Labour not just taking steps to regain its own old ‘Red Wall’ heartlands, but breaking new ground, just as the general election nears.

And while Kim McGuinness’ victory in the North East mayoral election was expected, it also offered Labour some relief.

The row around left-winger Jamie Driscoll, who was elected as Labour’s North of Tyne Mayor in 2019, being excluded from the party’s candidate shortlist for the new role was unflattering, but they have survived it.

Driscoll performed well for an independent candidate but failed to make good on a recent opinion poll that suggested the contest was neck-and-neck.

Labour didn’t have it all their own way, losing 10 seats and only narrowly holding onto their majority in South Tyneside, though that can clearly be linked to local issues like a long-running bin strike.

The region’s three police and crime commissioner roles are all now held by Labour, and they extended their majority on Sunderland City Council, where Reform UK demonstrated their threat to the Tories by beating them to a series of second places.

Labour also took back control of Hartlepool Borough Council for the first time since 2019, which is symbolically significant after their parliamentary by-election defeat in 2021 which Starmer has admitted caused him to consider quitting.

Houchen was re-elected with 73% of the vote on that same day three years ago, before repeating the trick with a more modest 54% share (against two challengers rather than one) this time.

It seems many voters paid little attention to controversies around the Teesworks project, though Labour are promising more scrutiny if they get into government.

Houchen’s campaign featured little mention of the Conservatives, instead making the most of his strong personal profile, and as such it’s wise not to read too much into the result in terms of his party’s wider appeal.

Evidence to back that up also comes from the fact that Houchen gained a majority of votes in Hartlepool while the Tories were losing councillors there, and incumbent Conservative Steve Turner lost the Cleveland PCC role to his Labour challenger Matt Storey on largely the same patch as the mayor.

At least Houchen may have given Tory MPs around the country - at least those who aren’t standing down - inspiration to fight similar rearguard efforts in defence of their parliamentary seats later in the year.

And that Tees Valley result may have spared Rishi Sunak from having to fight a leadership battle right now.

There are more big results to come from other parts of the country over the weekend that could change the narrative, while a Labour majority at the general election is far from a done deal.

Of course, these local elections were a significant milestone in their own right - and Labour is also in new territory because the North East and York & North Yorkshire mayoral positions are, well, brand new.

For the first time, every part of the region now has a directly-elected mayor, leading combined authorities with significant funding and powers over things like transport, regeneration and skills, and given the chance to focus on local priorities and tackle regional inequalities.

Not everyone loves the mayoral approach, but it’s one the government has followed, and we’ve seen the North East miss out on some funding previously after the south of Tyne councils rejected the deal on offer in 2016.

That has been tidied up now.

The journey is not over and I’m sure there will be plenty of battles to come over further funding and powers.

But more important decisions for the region will now be made in the region.

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