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Keir Starmer

Keir Starmer. Photo: Rwendland / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0, license linked at bottom of article

With local elections looming, Starmer’s Labour continues in its failure to offer an effective alternative for Teesside, argues Alex Brooke

It is very possible that Labour will perform badly in the forthcoming local council elections and the Hartlepool Parliamentary by-election next month.

On Teesside, Labour’s decline and poor votes have been evident for some years. It remains a solidly working class region that once saw highly unionised workers in heavy industry such as steel, shipbuilding and chemicals.

Poverty and deprivation are long-term facts of life for many.  Life expectancy makes for sorry reading, and has actually gone backwards during the last ten years under the impact of austerity.  The mortality rate amongst people aged 45-49 has increased.

Some council wards have the highest levels of child poverty and lowest life chances in the country. It is locally known as the Tees Health Legacy, where people still usually fail to reach the retirement age and see their final years out with dignity, free from social disadvantage.

Today, employment in in well-paid, unionised jobs can be difficult to come by, especially where the community has been fragmented and scattered by a generation of neoliberalism. This does not ring true throughout the region, but if one is confined to inner city and estate areas, there is not much to look forward to.

There was a time when Labour comfortably dominated Teesside’s local councils and Parliamentary constituencies, even if such elected representatives were usually on the right of the Party. Local people were loyal for generations to Labour councillors who usually lived and worked in the immediate area. Rank and file trade union reps interacted not just with workers in the workplace but local people in general on a daily basis. They were well-known and a part of the community. Today, this is not always the case.

The Tories have made significant inroads into areas like Redcar and Middlesbrough South, where heavy industry with organised workers once thrived. Indeed, some of the Tory inroads are perceived as safe seats where they will be difficult to dislodge. Why so?

People feel that Labour has taken them for granted where they have not been listened to or engaged with. A frequent saying is that ‘Labour is not for the Working Class anymore’. During the EU referendum, local people felt that Labour disrespected them. Some in the Labour Party were heard to say that local people were stupid and racist to vote the way they did. Is it any wonder people turned their backs on a Party they once voted for without question?

Despite this, Labour still carried on in an arrogant manner and did not engage with their voters. Local people were in effect told to ‘take it or leave it". Many voters decided to part company with Labour and some were tempted by the Tories. This enabled the Tories to win council and Parliamentary seats by default. Local people did not suddenly become raving supporters of the right but gave up voting as they saw the existing official political process as incapable of meeting their needs or demands.

Even considering what local people have gone through with Covid and austerity, they don't see Starmer’s Labour as a solution. Labour still seems remote and some election candidates (not all) seek election as a semi career move and onto better things. Under Starmer, voters are offered a mixture of patronising incoherent lukewarm negatives that will not be delivered or make very little difference to people’s lives. 

All of this is to underline the need for a serious opposition to the Tories, which takes them to task on their attempts to make workers pay for the economic fallout of the pandemic, while also putting across an alternative vision for society. The apparently growing popularity of other parties, including the newly formed Northern Independence Party, illustrates Starmer’s repeated failure to deliver on this.

It is not all doom and there is hope. Perhaps people such as on Teesside are starting to appreciate that voting is not the be and end all in trying to change their lives for the better. There are some glimmers where people in the community are getting organised and wanting to fight back where they are doing things for themselves.

Saturday’s day of action was a case in point, where activists from People’s Assembly linked up with trade unionists and ‘Kill the Bill’ protesters around the country to confront the government’s attacks on the right to protest as well as the bosses’ offensive against workers in form of ‘fire and rehire’. What is true for so many places around the country is true for Teesside. The desire for an alternative is there, and we need to build it.

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