Make no mistake, last week’s General Election result was a victory for Labour. We gained thirty seats, destroying the Conservatives majority and turning the tide in areas like Scotland where we had been on the defensive. In the North East too, it was a good night. We gained the key seat of Stockton South where Paul Williams will be an excellent MP, and maintained seats such as Darlington and Hartlepool, which were on the Tory target list. The only blemish on a great night was the loss of Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland in a tight race.
One overriding message that has come from these local results is a rejection of the Conservative narrative that Leave areas, and especially the North East, voted for the hardest of Brexits.
Voters were presented with a binary choice on the 23rd June 2016 – to leave or to remain in the EU. They were told by several prominent Leave campaigners what Leave would look like and quite often it was contradictory. Nationalists such as Farage talked about restricting the borders and cutting migration, Daniel Hannen claimed that we could maintain access to the Single Market. When I was on the doorstep last year campaigning for Remain, Leave voters gave both of these reasons and a multitude of others. Many simply wanted things to change. It is unfair then, to say that the result was a call to pull up the drawbridge and go for an extreme form of Brexit.
This, however, seems to be what Theresa May believes. Since coming to power, she has set about isolating herself from an increasingly united EU and grandstanding on the lives of the 3 million EU citizens living in the UK. She has said in a government white paper that she wants us to leave the Customs Union and the Single Market in order to limit people coming into the country. She did this because the Brexiteers in her Cabinet claimed it’s what Britain wanted, not just their fringe in the Tory Party. She called this General Election to prove this idea right and it has been overwhelmingly rejected.
In Hartlepool, where the Leave vote topped 70%, we saw UKIP’s vote collapse and Labour increase its majority by 4,600 votes. Sunderland Central, famously one of the first places to declare for Leave, had a 5.3% swing to Labour. Most commentators believed that these northern Labour heartlands would begin to turn blue, that the desire for a hard Brexit would remove all love for the Labour Party and send voters into the arms of Conservatives.
They didn’t because people didn’t like what they heard from Theresa May. They rejected the complete isolation that her chaotic Brexit encapsulated. They realised what May didn’t. That to have a healthy divorce you must try to work with the other party. It’s no use talking about how strong and stable you are if you have nothing to show for it at the end.
Instead, people accepted Labour’s argument. That there is a way to do Brexit that is reasonable and managed. Firms like Nissan and Hitachi rely on trade with the EU, and the people of the Northeast rely on these firms for jobs. People do not want those jobs thrown on the bonfire of Brexit to make Theresa May feel like some sort of Churchillian Prime Minister, taking on Europe. They know that these will be difficult negotiations and false bravado gets you nowhere. It seems the Prime Minister doesn’t.
This election must be a wakeup call for the Tory government. They can’t continue down the same path. With their majority gone, they must learn to compromise and get a deal that works for all of the UK, otherwise they will not get it through parliament. The British people are holding May’s feet to the fire to get a managed deal for Brexit. She must now deliver.