THE POLITICAL landscape of the North East has undergone huge changes in the past five years – and although another seismic shift was averted on Thursday, new signs of a mood change towards politics are emerging.

The historic loss of Durham County Council 12 months ago and a shock general election defeat in Hartlepool have led to questions whether Labour has lost its grip on a region that has for so long been a stronghold.

Yet despite winning some seats and holding closely fought others, the party still has a "significant job to do to win back the trust of people" in the North East, according to one victorious councillor. 

In the North East, the party’s biggest fear going into Thursday was the prospect of ceding control of Sunderland City Council for the first time in its history. They started the night just six seats away from losing overall control of the council after losing 19 in the last two elections, but only one seat fell to the Lib Dems, creating a “stalemate” between the two parties, with the Tories also losing a seat to the Lib Dems.

Sunderland’s Conservative group leader admitted ‘partygate’ had a “very specific impact” which they “didn’t see coming” in the local elections.

Read more: Labour keep control of Sunderland Council

Councillor Antony Mullen, leader of the council’s Conservative group, admitted ‘partygate’ had been an “undetectable threat”, with the issue not coming up on the doorstep, but rearing its head in Thursday’s polling numbers.

He said: “I have to be honest that it didn’t come up on the doorsteps, we didn’t see it coming, people were not bringing Boris Johnson up in negative terms.

“Perhaps that’s because they just don’t want to, or because it was more of a case they didn’t want to talk about it and they always planned on staying at home, so it was an undetectable threat in many ways for us.”

Reflecting on the night overall, he said after the party achieved its “best results in the history of the council” 12 months ago, they were “never going to be able to replicate that year on year.”

The Northern Echo: Councillor Antony Mullen, leader of Sunderland Conservative groupCouncillor Antony Mullen, leader of Sunderland Conservative group

Aware of the ‘partygate’ threat, Conservatives in Hartlepool pleaded with voters not to “punish” them for the “mistakes” made in Westminster.

When it came to the vote, Labour won seven out of 13 available seats on the council, a gain of one, and the Conservatives five, a gain of two, with the Tories increasing their share as the largest party from 12 to 15.

It means there is unlikely to be any major changes to the ruling coalition between the Conservatives, Independent Union and a number of independent councillors.

Nationally, Labour has said the results show it would be winning back key parliamentary constituencies in the north, including Hartlepool. But councillors in the region aren’t adamant more work needs to be done.

The Northern Echo: Hartlepool Headland Community Fire Station as a polling station. Picture: SARAH CALDECOTTHartlepool Headland Community Fire Station as a polling station. Picture: SARAH CALDECOTT

Cllr Jonathan Brash, deputy leader of Hartlepool Labour Party, said the party cannot be complacent despite a positive showing in the latest vote.

“We’re very conscious of the fact that 12 months ago and before that Hartlepool gave Labour a kicking at the polls,” he told The Northern Echo.

“We take nothing for granted. We recognise we have a significant job to do to win back the trust of people to prove that we can deliver for the people of Hartlepool and the wider North East. Last night was just the first step in that long process.

“We’re absolutely committed to winning back that trust, and we’ll do that through hard work and delivering for residents’ door by door, ward by ward.”

Read more: Conservatives increase seats in Hartlepool at 2022 election

Cllr Brash’s cautionary comments suggest how local representatives haven’t yet seen a change in local attitudes back to the party that always held the town’s seat up until last year.

And given the newly found success of the Lib Dems and Greens as well as continuity of independent candidates on Hartlepool Council, Cllr Brash suggests any future general election vote won’t be a straight match up between the two largest parties.

The Northern Echo: Cllr Jonathan Brash, deputy leader of Hartlepool Labour Party, said the party cannot be complacent Cllr Jonathan Brash, deputy leader of Hartlepool Labour Party, said the party cannot be complacent

He added: “The fact that smaller parties have made gains is testament to the fact that Labour are doing better but we’re not the finished article yet.

“We still have a way to go, so there’s no complacency from us. Many voters, although perhaps deserting the Conservative party, aren’t coming back to Labour and we know we’ve got a job to do to prove ourselves to our voters.”

Elsewhere, Labour remains in power in Newcastle but the successes of the Lib Dems and the Greens across the region hasn’t gone unnoticed. The Greens now hold six seats on South Tyneside Council, and are the second largest party, but there appears to be no overwhelming threat to the Labour’s dominance in North Tyneside, South Tyneside, and Gateshead.

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