Ed Miliband has insisted Labour still has a North East heartland, despite rebellious MPs and low opinion poll ratings.
The Labour leader was at the Baltic in Gateshead to meet business leaders yesterday as the North East took centre stage.
Mr Miliband was speaking after an exclusive Journal poll in the run-up to his conference speech showed only 16% of the region thought him the right man to lead the party.
And, while his promise to freeze energy bills may have improved his poll rating, he still faces a region with increasingly outspoken MPs.
Three Labour politicians have resigned from shadow Government over the last year in protest at Mr Miliband’s policies.
There has also been outspoken criticism of Mr Miliband’s decision to break funding links with the unions, and criticism from former cabinet minister Nick Brown over welfare reform.
Mr Miliband was asked if he took this into account when deciding not to give the North East any top jobs in his shadow cabinet, and insisted he recognised talent among his regional MPs.
Asked if he had a North East problem, Mr Miliband said: “Not at all I promoted Julie Elliott and Bridget Phillipson in the reshuffle
“We need a high-quality skilled workforce. Part of the answer is getting the sub-regional structures right, but also understanding the drivers of the local economy, and that is about skills as well.”
Mr Miliband said he understood why many Labour MPs have been “worried about change” over his plans to end automatic funding links with trade unions. Wansbeck’s Ian Lavery and Easington’s Grahame Morris have both questioned the merits of distancing Labour from trade union financial support.
“I have great respect for Ian and Grahame, they are great MPs, but whenever there is change people ask questions about it. What we propose is making us a genuine party of change.”
The MP was speaking at a lunchtime event arranged by the North East Economic Forum, with South Tyneside Council leader Iain Malcolm among those praised for their work in helping bring the region together.
He added that there was no divide over the party’s approach to benefits, despite criticism from North East MPs over Labour’s refusal tochallenge the Government’s work programme, in which emergency legislation was needed to prevent the forced work experience being open to further legal challenge.
Mr Miliband said there was no “dividing line”, adding: “What you saw at party conference was the only party which wants fairness in its welfare policy and a promise to abolish the bedroom tax.
“We have shown how we will pay for that, and it will benefit families across the region.”
Mr Miliband, who later went on to take part in a question and answer session chaired by Journal editor Brian Aitken, said that Labour believed regions such as the North East needed stronger powers for greater local economic development.
Mr Miliband said the Government had been “incredibly timid” with its response to Lord Heseltine’s report on devolving power and responsibility to local authorities.