The race is on in the general election. The North East is now centre stage with key seats that must be won or retained by the main parties if one is to emerge victorious on May 7.
Three seats are in prime position to determine who will enter 10 Downing Street next month. Each is a snapshot of wider issues with clear consequences for the election’s outcome where the incumbent parties are under serious threat of losing their seats to rival candidates.
The first is Redcar. The seat had been Labour since its creation in 1974. But the Liberal Democrats won the seat at the 2010 general election with Ian Swales, who has decided to step down.
Josh Mason is standing for the Liberal Democrats now and proving a controversial selection. In February, he took a selfie in front of a crematorium furnace near Yearby and uploaded it to Facebook and the dating app Tinder. That’s not a typo. I know. He has since ‘deeply regretted’ any offence it might have caused. But doesn’t stop there.
Last week Mason said his party leader Nick Clegg would not do him any favours visiting Redcar – and that any such visit would be a ‘double-edged sword’. Whoever said loyalty in politics was dead?
Mason faces a serious challenger in Anna Turley, seeking to retake Redcar for Labour.
She’s an experienced campaigner and public servant with strong backing from senior figures in the party and an active team.
Expect Redcar to be one of many seats Liberal Democrats will lose on election day.
A second key seat is Stockton South. James Wharton won it for the Conservatives in the 2010 general election with 38.9% of the vote compared to 38.3% for Labour, or just 332 votes.
Wharton is another candidate receiving attention for the wrong reasons. He’s been accused of a lack of leadership by Ken Lupton, the former Tory leader of Stockton Borough Council, for refusing to support aborted plans for a Wynyard Hospital to replace ageing in North Tees and Hartlepool after seven years of planning and reviews – Wharton has called these plans a “white elephant.”
Wharton has also attracted controversy for his speeches in Westminster. Or rather for how few he gives. It turned out Wharton gave only 12 speeches for the whole of last year and far below the average for most MPs. Coun Judith Wallace, the leader of North Tyneside Conservatives, claimed this inactivity “short-changes” voters and “just isn’t good enough.”
But what about the speeches he did make? When Wharton’s name came first to introduce a Private Members’ Bill for the 2013-14 Parliament, so many issues to choose from that could benefit Stockton South voters. He could have pushed for new legislation improving public services and transport providing better access and support.
Instead, Wharton used this unique opportunity to contribute to Parliamentary affairs by flogging an EU referendum law that was over shortly after it was announced with an eye more towards appealing to his fellow backbenchers than his local constituency.
His primary opponent is Labour’s Louise Baldock – another candidate with widespread experience in the private, public and voluntary sectors stretching for over 30 years. This includes serving as a former Vice Chair of the Housing Association and former member of the Labour Party’s governing National Executive Committee. Louise is also enjoying major backing from local candidates such as Phil Wilson in Sedgefield and other senior Labour figures.
Stockton South is a seat that both the Tories and Labour know they must win if they are to form the next government. This is a crucial election to watch for it might reveal about the national mood.
A third key seat to watch is in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Sir Alan Beith has held this seat for several terms for the Liberal Democrats, but is stepping down. It’s a geographically huge constituency and second largest in England covering about 1,000 square miles.
But there is much less space separating the two leading candidates for this important race.
The Liberal Democrats selected Julie Pörksen, with experience working in the private and charity sectors. Her main challenger is Anne-Marie Trevelyan for the Conservatives.
Anne-Marie came within about 2500 votes of defeating Sir Alan in 2010. She brings to the race name recognition and support from David Cameron which has translated thus far into a slight edge, but much too early to call in an election that has already become especially heated.
The North East. Three key marginal seats that could see incumbents voted out with Labour and Tory gains – with clear consequences for which party shall form the next government. Our region’s voters have big choices ahead. The only question – how will they answer?
Thom Brooks is Professor of Law and Government at Durham University.