VOTERS have moved away from the divisions over Brexit and are now most concerned about the future of their jobs as the country recovers from the pandemic, the Labour leader said yesterday as he visited the North-East seat which is to be the scene of a crucial by-election.

Sir Keir Starmer’s presence in Hartlepool yesterday is a sign of how vital the red wall seat is to the party as it defends a slim majority in May 6’s contest.

Click above to hear the Labour leader interviewed by the Echo's Chris Lloyd.

At the last general election, Boris Johnson’s triumphant Conservatives won seats which had previously been considered safe for Labour all around Hartlepool – Sedgefield, Bishop Auckland, Durham North West and Darlington all fell. The party held onto Hartlepool with a 3,595 majority largely because the pro-Brexit vote was split between the Conservatives and the Brexit Party.

Sir Keir said: “We lost badly in December 2019 and part of my mission as leader of the Labour Party is to rebuild trust across the country, including in the North-East, and if those words are to be turned into action it means spending time talking to people to understand their priorities.

“The message here is very clear that it is the jobs of the future, the next generation, that are so important and that has to be the aspiration and ambition of the Labour Party.”

The Northern Echo:

He visited the Hartlepool nuclear power station with the party’s candidate, Dr Paul Williams, where he said employees were desperate to learn about their future.

“What’s going to happen to this power station as its natural life ends in 2024,” said Sir Keir. “Why haven’t decisions about the future already been taken?

“We are committed to it (nuclear power), in particular the next generation here. It was a Labour government back in 1945 that started the journey of civil nuclear and it has to be part of what comes next. It has to be integrated, there needs to be a proper energy strategy across the North-East, so the decision is not just for the next five to ten years but for the next generation.”

Labour’s candidate, Dr Paul Williams, is campaigning on the town’s public services.

“He has spent the last year working on the front line in the NHS in Hartlepool during the pandemic and that speaks volumes for his commitment to Hartlepool in contrast to the out-of-town Conservative candidate whose contribution to this debate is to have a real terms cut to the wages of those who have been working alongside Paul,” said Mr Starmer.

The Northern Echo reported yesterday that Jill Mortimer, a Hambleton district councillor, is standing for the Conservatives.

When the Labour MP Mike Hill resigned amid a sexual harassment investigation, the bookies installed the Tories as slight favourites, but really the seat is too close to call. It appears to be a straight fight between red and blue, but as Hartlepool once elected a man in a monkey suit as its mayor, an independent streak could surface to the benefit of some of the smaller parties, like the North-East Party or the Social Democratic Party.

Another big issue in the town is the future of 250 jobs at Liberty steel, the company which is in danger following the collapse of financier Greensill in which former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron had an interest.

The Northern Echo:

Dr Williams said: “The Government should do whatever it takes to secure those jobs and no options should be off the table, including state ownership if that were necessary. We have seen there is a role for the state when the market fails.

“There’s good strategic reasons for this, reasons in terms of jobs and reasons for producing green steel – if nuclear power is being used to create the steel, then it will be clean green steel as well.”

However, Hartlepool’s attitude to Brexit will affect the result of the by-election. In the 2016 referendum, the town voted 69.5 per cent to leave the EU – one of the biggest margins in the country – which was why Mr Starmer was so categoric that the party had moved on from its 2019 position.

“We are looking forwards not backwards,” he said.

“The referendum was five years ago now. We have left the EU. There is no case for rejoining. We want to make our exit a success. We want the deal to work, we are asking how we make the UK a great success under whatever trading arrangements we make with the EU and the wider world.

“We don’t want to go back to the divisions of the 2016 referendum. We want to speak to and for those in Hartlepool who voted either way in the referendum.

“Now what matters most is what the future looks like not what divisions we might have had in the past.”

Labour has called on ministers to provide clarity on the future of Liberty Steel’s UK plants amid fears thousands of jobs could be lost if the firm goes under.

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng refused to rule out the prospect the business could be taken into public ownership, saying “all options are on the table”.

However, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the firm’s 5,000 workers urgently needed an answer to the basic question “What’s going to happen to me and my job in Liberty Steel?”

Mr Kwarteng confirmed ministers had turned down a request by Liberty’s parent company, the GFG Alliance, for a £170 million bailout.