In a recent article, based on the latest British Social Attitudes survey from the National Centre for Social Research, North East Bylines looked at how voters in northern England swung right, over three decades, unnoticed by most people, until the region’s new politics burst through dramatically in the Brexit referendum and the 2019 general election.
Today we carry out an analysis, based on this author’s own research, into the immediate, short-term and local causes why and how the north’s shift to the right was led in one specific place – Tees Valley – and by one identifiable politician – Ben Houchen.
Houchen, whether you love him or loathe him politically, is a formidable campaigner, publicist and vote winner. But he was lucky, as well, even to get the opportunity to lead the process of turning first Tees Valley and then the rest of the northern red wall blue.
If the five Labour council leaders in Tees Valley, made up of Darlington, Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, Stockton and Redcar & Cleveland, had followed the example of their comrades in the rest of the North East and rejected a devolution deal in 2016 there would have been no devolution and no mayor in Tees Valley.
Houchen would, very possibly, have remained an obscure opposition councillor on Stockton Council.
“No mayor, no deal; no deal, no money”
The five Tees Valley councils, however, had a history of mutual cooperation and a willingness to work with the government, even if it was a Tory government. They didn’t want a mayor any more than their neighbours to the north did but prioritised the funding. As one council leader put it to this author: “No mayor, no deal; no deal no money.”
When Houchen was selected as the Conservative Party’s candidate for mayor in the May 2017 election he was very much the underdog. Though not as solidly Labour as the region’s other conurbation to the north, Tyne & Wear, Tees Valley was a predominantly Labour area, The party held 137 of the 243 seats on the five councils and had an absolute majority on four of them, falling just short in Redcar & Cleveland.
But Houchen fought a brilliantly unconventional campaign, largely ignoring the economic development which was supposed to be the principal purpose of mayors and the combined authorities which they head.
Instead, he focused on three topics which he judged, correctly, to be of more interest to the voters of Tees Valley:
- He attacked the Cleveland Police and Crime Commissioner relentlessly and called for the setting up of an independent commission to review the structure of the force, which he regarded as failing. He turned out to be right when, in September 2019, it was graded inadequate by HM Inspectorate in all three areas assessed – effectiveness, efficiency and legitimacy;
- He promised to buy back and revitalise the struggling Durham Tees Valley Airport, in which the five local councils and Durham County Council had a minority share. After the election he fulfilled his promise against the initial opposition of the council leaders, who now made up his cabinet.
He did so by appealing over the heads of the cabinet directly to the voters. He mounted an adroit PR campaign culminating in a cabinet meeting in a local hotel conference room booked specially for the occasion. Hundreds of supporters of the airport plan and a bank of TV cameras crowded in see the hapless council leaders vote reluctantly for the purchase. After the vote Houchen was magnanimous in victory.
He had combined political, professional and PR skills to find a way of spending £40mn on a project which required the unanimous support of his cabinet and which they had all earlier opposed. He was publicly gracious in victory, defending his cabinet against criticism and saying the deal had been improved by their robust scrutiny. He had made the most of the opportunity to display leadership before the largest possible audience.
- Most bizarrely, Houchen pledged to campaign for Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status for the Teesside parmo. “We should be proud of the things we produce, including the world famous parmo”, he told a local paper.
This led to mixed reactions, to say the least. A political opponent of Houchen told this author mockingly:
“It’s a local delicacy, probably about 3,000 calories of pork escallop covered in cheese, deep-fried…best served up after people have had several gallons of beer at 2 o’clock in the morning.”
For an ally of the mayor, though, mockery of the parmo is replaced by admiration of the way that the mayor continued to exploit it in office:
“The parmo is populist and fun”, he said. “and he [Houchen] made the Chief Secretary to the Treasury [Liz Truss] eat a parmo in public, on video…The day he gets Theresa May [then Prime Minister] to eat a parmo I think he’ll have completely succeeded.”
He qualified his description of Houchen’s campaign as populist by adding: “It certainly caught the mood of politics. It wasn’t extreme; it wasn’t populist on things like immigration and race and things like that. It was populist in economic terms though…Ben definitely ran a populist campaign, but populist should not be used as some kind of pejorative statement. Just because it’s populist doesn’t mean it’s wrong.”
Theresa May never did eat a parmo as far as is known, though Boris Johnson might have done on one of his mutual-support visits to Houchen in Tees Valley.
The parmo should probably go down in history as one of the few delicacies (if that is what it is) to have played a part in winning a UK election, for Houchen went on to defeat his Labour opponent, the leader of Redcar & Cleveland, by the narrowest of margins. The rest, as they say, is history.