18 C
London
Thursday, June 30, 2022

‘Everybody’s ready for a change’: Labour losing grip on Sunderland | Sunderland

The village of Rickleton, near Sunderland, is a scene of quiet suburban bliss on a warm April morning. But the sound from the cricket field of leather on willow has been disturbed by frantic electioneering before a vote that could spell danger for the Labour leader, Keir Starmer.

Labour has ruled Sunderland with an iron grip for decades but the recent political upheaval has left it clinging to power. The party has a majority of only six councillors, meaning it could lose overall control of the council next month for the first time since it was founded in 1974.

Starmer has visited the city twice in recent weeks in a bid to avert a disaster that would undermine what could be a strong set of local elections for Labour across England on 5 May.

Sunderland council’s new headquarters, City Hall, on the banks of the river Wear
Sunderland council’s headquarters, City Hall, on the banks of the river Wear, a building it is renting for £2.4m a year. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Rickleton is representative of Labour’s struggle outside the big cities. The former mining village, 10 miles west of Sunderland, has been core Labour territory for generations. But last year it broke with tradition and elected a Conservative councillor, one of six voted in across the city on a night when Labour lost nine seats. This year, the council leader’s own seat is up for grabs, and the Tories are eyeing what would be a major scalp.

“I think everybody’s ready for a change now,” said Linda Delaney, walking her 12-year-old springer spaniel, Olly, on the playing fields where Harraton colliery once stood. Delaney, 69, said she would vote Conservative because she felt Labour had taken people for granted and misused money locally: “I think they could do with a reality check.”

As she spoke, Boris Johnson was repeating his apology to MPs for breaking lockdown laws in June 2020. The Partygate saga has helped Labour to a six-point poll lead nationally and appears to be putting off some would-be Tory voters fromturning out at all.

Shoppers in Sunderland
Shoppers in Sunderland, where the Conservatives are confident of taking control of the council after the local elections in May. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

One Labour figure said they had encountered many Labour-Tory switchers from 2019 planning to stay at home on 5 May, rather than return to Labour. “There’s a big poll lead nationally and we are getting a hearing again, but I’m still not sensing that love on the ground,” he said.

For Antony Mullen, the 30-year-old leader of the Sunderland Conservatives, out canvassing in the Barnes area of the city on Wednesday, the prime minister risked derailing what could have been a big night for the party in north-east England. “It’s going really good. I’m just worried that something else might happen nationally,” he said.

Mullen, who has previously called for Johnson to resign, believes the prime minister’s days are numbered: “I think he’s done for. I don’t think he’ll be leading us into the next general election.”

Seventeen of the seats up for grabs in Sunderland are held by Labour. Seven of those are occupied by Labour councillors stepping down, taking with them almost 70 years of council experience. “Jumping before they’re pushed, some of them,” said one Labour councillor.

The Conservatives, meanwhile, are aiming to build on the gains that have seen the party go from six councillors in 2015 to 19 today. The party took nearly 24,000 votes across the city’s three constituencies in the 2015 general election. In 2019, that had almost doubled to 40,685 votes, slashing Labour’s majorities to about 3,000 and making Sunderland a key battleground in the next national poll.

Three recent council byelections have given Labour hope of survival in Sunderland. The party gained a former Ukip seat in March and took two seats in neighbouring County Durham, including one from the Conservatives last week.

The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, talks to young people in Southwick during a recent visit to Sunderland
The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, talks to young people in Southwick during a recent visit to Sunderland. Photograph: Tom Wilkinson/PA

The former Labour councillor Iain Kay, who lost his seat four years ago but is standing for election again, said there had been a “big step forward” from recent campaigns: “The last few years have been brutal. The outright unbridled unfriendliness has been tangible. This year I’ve not had one single negative response and a lot of people are reporting that.”

After decades of stagnation and failed projects, there have been signs recently of progress in Sunderland. New arts studios and cultural spaces have opened, including a live music venue inside a former fire station; hotels and office blocks have sprung up on the skyline. Only last month, the council officially opened its gleaming new headquarters, City Hall, on the banks of the River Wear, a building it is renting for £2.4m a year. The eye-watering cost – double the annual spend on sports and leisure – has irked voters facing the biggest fall in living standards since the mid-1950s.

While Labour still holds 43 of Sunderland’s 75 council seats, a loss of six councillors would take the town hall into no overall control for the first time in 48 years. Paul Edgeworth, a Lib Dem councillor, said there had been “no conversations” with the Tories about forming a coalition but that they would be willing to work together on “basic services issues”.

There is potential, however, for Partygate to help Labour cling on. Marilyn Henderson, a former NHS physiotherapist, said she had always voted Labour but switched to the Conservatives in 2019 owing to the “shambles” under Jeremy Corbyn.

The 75-year-old remain voter said she would not vote for Starmer’s party this time but that Johnson’s rule-breaking had put her off voting for the Tories. “Nationally there’s so many ridiculous things going on,” she said. “It really is awful and it has upset so many people.”

Latest news

Related news