Andy McDonald is one of the few surviving senior Labour figures in the Tees Valley. He tells Chris Lloyd how the party can rebuild after the Tory tsunami swept through

MONDAY may not be the foot-to-the-floor, tyre-screeching acceleration away from Covid-19 that Boris Johnson’s roadmap had once suggested, but as we slowly leave the pandemic behind, we will come to a political crossroads.

That’s the view of the most senior Labour figure left in the Tees Valley following the outbreak of Toryism that has proved so contagious in the last two years that MPs, the metro mayor and local councils have turned the area almost entirely blue.

The Northern Echo: James Walsh

“Look at all the seats we’ve lost,” says Andy McDonald, the Middlesbrough MP and shadow cabinet Employment spokesman, surveying the political wreckage. “There’s just me and Alex Cunningham in Stockton North sitting there as two red dots, and we’ve got to think about how we recover the ground.”

He believes that as the country pulls away from the pandemic, people will begin to look to a new direction.

“There’s a moment now where we are coming out of this pandemic and we are genuinely reaching a fork in the road,” he says. “Are we going to revert to the short termism, quarterly returns, exploitative practices of the past, or are we going to embrace the desire for a new deal for working people and have an economic structure that provides that equality, fairness, security and opportunity for our people?

“There’s a real sense that people worked so hard during the pandemic but they haven’t been regarded or protected in the right way.”

Instances from the one per cent pay offer for nurses to the “fire and re-hire” policies of big companies show him that Labour has to, once again, get alongside working people.

“We have to earn the right to represent people, to fight for the issues that matter to them,” he says. “We’ve got to convince them that we are on their side and will make the lives of themselves and their families considerably better. They didn’t see that in us.”

Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, people didn’t see Labour as standing up for the country.

“I reject the cry that we are not patriotic,” he says. “Dedication to the wants and needs of the British people is our raison d’etre, and you can’t get more patriotic than that, but the background is Brexit.

“As far as the world is concerned, the Labour Party did not have a clear and convincing position. We were trying to navigate a course through a no-deal Brexit, which would have been catastrophic, and I think that communicated as being unclear opposite the Tories’ clarity of ‘getting Brexit done’.”

But, as the fork in the road looms, he sees an opportunity for Labour with the creation of the freeport on Teesside, which the Conservatives hail as one of the first big benefits of Brexit.

“The freeport offer is a whole series of corporate welfare incentives on an industrial scale without any corresponding benefit for the working people, who have got to be there and to be able to bargain to get the best outcome for themselves,” he says. “When I hear of the sovereign wealth fund of Abu Dhabi wanting to come to Teesport, then I worry, because they will not recognise the ability of working people to negotiate and bargain, they won’t recognise trade unions.”

Although the huge industrial employers of the past, in which the Labour movement was rooted, have gone, Mr McDonald, who was a solicitor before he became Middlesbrough MP in 2012, sees Labour regrouping and reorganising through unions, in the public sector, in local communities and across social media, and so reconnecting to its core values and voters.

“We have to engage in an intelligent and thoughtful way in our communities and workplaces because we have been founding wanting over the last four general elections,” he says. “That northern collectivism is rooted in our industrial and manufacturing past and our present and it has not gone away.

“It is where we come from. It defines us.”

And, naturally, he believes Keir Starmer – who this weekend is starting a summer-long relaunch – is the man to lead that grassroots reconnection, in the way that the England football team got the nation on side.

“Look at the way Gareth Southgate has conducted himself,” he says. “He’s a man of great honesty integrity and decency. Keir is not a comic or an acrobat or a fool. He is serious, he’s decent honest, a man of integrity and principle, and I think that that will eventually win out,

“Boris Johnson is ebullient, he’s effusive and he’s very persuasive, but unfortunately 90pc of what he says happens to be untrue, like his wonderful enthusiasm about freedom day or terminus day – but the truth is we are going to live with Covid for a long time.

“He’s been given an awful lot of licence because everybody wants us to succeed through this pandemic, but when we come out of it, that will not sustain him because what he’s offering is not sustainable, it will not transform lives, it will not level up after the levelling down of the last 11 years, and that will become evident over the next few years.”

And that’s when the country will reach its post-pandemic political crossroads – but will Labour be ready to effect a change in direction?