After Labour Party's defeat in general election, prominent leaders speak out on next steps

Will the North East be cast politically adrift or will the Labour Party fight back just as it did in 1992?

Newcastle City Council Leader Nick Forbes
Newcastle City Council Leader Nick Forbes

“This will be a 1992 style fight-back,” said Iain Malcolm, the Labour leader of South Tyneside Council, who just hours after his party’s overnight General Election hell sounds ready to re-arm and plough on for a victory for his colleagues in 2020.

The comparison between the Conservative’s shock win in 1992 and 2015 is down to the off kilter polling, and the shock result that gave the Conservatives an unexpected majority. Think of Ed Miliband as Neil Kinnock (but swap the ‘hell yes I’m tough for the equally cringeworthy Kinnock rally cry of ‘we’re alright’). And if you’ll suspend your imagination, envisage David Cameron as John Major, except with an even narrower majority to play with.

“It’s clearly a result we weren’t expecting,” said Iain, who bucked the national trend by returning a borough council with an even bigger majority for Labour than before, while vast swathes of the country turned Conservative.

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“The opinion polls in 1992 got it wrong and the opinion polls got it wrong on this occasion.

“This is 1992 all over again, but in fact the Prime Minister has an even smaller majority than John Major had so his room for manouvre with the back-benchers is minimal.”

Perhaps slightly tired from watching the catastrophic demise of the Labour party across the country, but councillor Iain Malcolm’s lost none of his spirit for overcoming a gargantuan challenge.

Councillor Iain Malcolm
Councillor Iain Malcolm

The thing is, for all Labour’s might and triumph within its urban council bases and sea of red MPs, the North East is now cast politically adrift, at odds with the rest of the country.

Those working for Labour have continued at quite a pace, rather than licking party wounds, the leadership race has kick-started, and has gathered pace this week with several hats thrown in the ring - although the September leadership election does seem an awfully long way off with an entire summer in limbo which the Conservatives will use to get through as much legislation as possible.

Coun Malcolm, who was contesting and won his own ward seat in Horsley Hill, South Tyneside, said: “We don’t need to rush into it. We need to have a conversation as a party about what kind of leader. We need to reflect rather than pick a leader because of their personality is high profile in the press or they look good on TV.

“MPs, the parliamentary party, councillors, the local government association, party members - they all need to have that coversation and they will be consulted at party meetings. We do need this time of reflection to see which candidates come forward and who would be able to present that vision. There are plenty of capable people.”

Coun Malcolm had considered running for the South Shields parliamentary seat vacated by David Miliband in 2013, however he decided to stick with his town hall job and Emma Lewell-Buck won the seat for Labour instead.

Yet in the North East, the council chiefs are part of Labour’s power base, and as visible as its MPs.

Alongside Paul Watson for Sunderland City Council, Simon Henig in County Durham, Norma Redfearn in North Tynesdie, Mick Henry in Gateshead and Nick Forbes, leader of Newcastle City Council, these men and women push forward the Labour agenda locally, and over the next five years their work will be essential in maintaining the support for the party within the region.

North News & Pictures Councillor Paul Watson, Leader of Sunderland City Council
Councillor Paul Watson, Leader of Sunderland City Council

It’s their actions that stick in the mind of the electorate as much as their MP.

The North East has long been regarded as safe territory for Labour and recent suggestions that is no longer the case have irritated those who have won power.

Certainly strengthened majorities among its MPs and councils would show that it’s retaining immense popularity, but UKIP did well in the 2015 General Election coming second in certain areas, and of particular note, in the South Shields seat.

And the Conservatives are now the rivals to Labour for council seats if the local election results are anything to go by, although the Lib Dems continue to have a solid presence in Newcastle, despite losing two seats.

Coun Malcolm, who has been an elected member since 1988, said: “Labour had to have a narrative and have good policies and a good manifesto to present to the people of the UK. We took a battering in Scotland for a whole host of reasons and we have just got to trust ourselves and start the process again. But what we don’t want to do is present a similar manifesto to 2015 in five years time.”

And on that 1992-style exit poll, that was just monumentally ‘out’, he said there may be some grounds for considering the model that works on mainland Europe.

He said: “There may be an argument for doing what they do in the continent, ban opinion polls, prevent their publication in newspapers a week before the election.

“The opinion polls may have had an affect on certain elements of the electorate.”

Likewise Nick Forbes, Newcastle City Council leader who became the face of the campaign against local authority budget cuts throughout the last Parliament, said nobody had predicted the scale of the win for the Conservatives from the polls.

Newcastle City Council leader Nick Forbes
Newcastle City Council leader Nick Forbes

With an ear-piece presumably pumping through live radio coverage of the exit polls and subsequent General Election results as they came in on May 7, Coun Forbes wandered Sports Central in Newcastle expressionless during the election count.

Whether he was contemplating the predicted defeat for Labour at 10.05pm, it was certainly not clear by the look on his face and it made for an unsettling atmosphere inside the cavernous sports hall. Perhaps it was disbelief, or just quiet resignation that the polls generally don’t lie, except that time back in 1992...oh and again in 2015.

While the Lib Dems were visibly shocked to the core by their savage journey through a turbo-election spin cycle, Labour were stoney faced.

Coun Forbes said: “And the pollsters will have to answer to that because there’s a strong argument for not having opinion polls in the immediate run up to the election because they clearly effect how the public voted and gave the Conservatives crucial momentum in the last 72 hours of the campaign.

“Throughout the election campaign we were getting a really warm reaction on the door stop and what we’re finding is that the politics of the North East is becoming increasingly different from the rest of the country.

“We are winning Labour support here which clearly isn’t matching up to the other parts of the UK.

“My sense is that there was a last minute surge towards the Conservatives and that may have been effected by the opinion polls but it was very clear that the Conservative message of a Labour/SNP coalition hit home, particularly in England and people came out to vote against that, so it was very clever negative campaigning.”

He said Ed Miliband’s suffering at the hands of certain national press was to be expected as he had gone into the election threatening to break up the power of the ‘press barons’.

Glum Ed Miliband can't hide his disappointment despite winning his seat, admitting defeat nationally at Doncaster Election count
Glum Ed Miliband can't hide his disappointment despite winning his seat, admitting defeat nationally at Doncaster Election count

“It’s not surprising that they threw everything that they had in stopping him from getting to Number 10,” said Coun Forbes.

Yet with Labour’s presence in the North East now circulated by the Conservative seats of Berwick, Hexham, Penrith and the Border, Richmond and Scarborough and Whitby, the fight is now on to make sure the region isn’t cast adrift by the Government.

“There’s now a very strong risk that the Conservatives will turn their back on the North East completely,” said Coun Forbes.

“They have proved that they don’t need support in the North East to rule the country and that means that we have to find pragmatic ways of working with them to ensure our region isn’t overlooked.

“They also have a responsibility to be seen to govern for the whole country wherever they have support or not because the dominance of the SNP vote in Scotland struck up by David Cameron’s anti-Scottish rhetoric is of serious risk to the future of the country.

“From the North East region’s point of view one of the biggest issues in this parliament will be the EU referendum that the Conservatives have promised. Pulling out of the EU would be devestating to our region and our exporting potential.”

He added that the region is now in ‘real danger’ of becoming ‘squeezed’ between a Conservative dominated South in England and the SNP dominated Scotland.

A week is a long time in politics however, and with polls way out, and a Conservative majority in, and a raft of policy expected to be delivered in the next week, some of which could boost the North East, whether it will truly be a re-run of 1992 remains to be seen.

North East General and Local Election results 2015

Results: North East constituency election results in full: How you voted in the General Election

Results: Local election results in full: How the North East voted for its councillors

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