Labour’s candidate for North Durham has insisted he will prioritise the area in Westminster if elected amid criticism he is not local. 

Luke Akehurst responded to criticism over his controversial selection, emotionally detailed his “life-threatening” disability and love of the NHS, and told how his previous political experience means he is the right man for the job 

In an interview with the Local Democracy Reporting Service, Akehurst was eager to tackle ‘the elephant in the room’ from the outset. 

“I’m not a local candidate,” he admitted, “but I’ve got a lot of political experience. I’m like a sponge, I’m absorbing and learning exceptionally fast. I’m like a new signing to the Labour North team.

“I bring years and years of top-level political experience but because I come from outside the area I have to be double the local champion to earn people’s trust and respect.”

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Former North Durham Labour MP Kevan Jones (left) with the party's candidate Luke AkehurstFormer North Durham Labour MP Kevan Jones (left) with the party's candidate Luke Akehurst (Image: Luke Akehurst)

Candidate selection controversy

However, his selection has been widely criticised. The Green Party accused Labour of ‘disrespecting’ constituents, while the Liberal Democrats poked fun at Mr Akehurst relocating from Oxford. 

Addressing the controversy over his selection and claims that he had been ‘parachuted in’ by the Labour Party, Mr Akehurst said the General Election announcement caught many political parties off guard. 

“Labour didn’t have the time or staffing resources to run a full selection process,” he said. “There were a couple of candidates shortlisted and I’m confident I won it because of my track record of experience and the party knows I’m at the top of my game in terms of campaigning.”

His first visit to North Durham as a candidate came just a day after he was selected. 

He added: “It wasn’t the perfect process and it would have been ideal to have had longer, but it is what it is.”

Luke Akehurst says he's involved in three canvassing session per day in the lead-up to the General Election. Luke Akehurst says he's involved in three canvassing session per day in the lead-up to the General Election. (Image: Luke Akehurst)

Previous political experience 

The 52-year-old was a councillor in Hackney, London, between 2002-2014 and said the area shares similarities with North Durham, which includes Chester-le-Street and Stanley. He explained: “I’m used to representing places where there are lots of problems with poverty, unemployment, and inequality, and there’s a need for a strong state to intervene to help people.”

He joined the Labour Party at 16, inspired after seeing his parents struggle when Margaret Thatcher became prime minister. “I found that the system was unfair to less well-off people and that’s the driving force in why I’ve spent most of my life in the Labour Party,” he said. “I want to fight for people so their kids get a good start in life and lots of opportunities.”

But previous bids to become an MP failed, in Aldershot in 2001 and Castle Point in Essex in 2005. 

He has since sat on Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee (NEC) as a member representing constituency Labour parties and worked as a director of Labour First - the group that spearheaded numerous attacks on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

‘Life-threatening’ disability 

In 2009, he developed a neurological disorder called POEMS syndrome and spent five months in hospital followed by a further nine months in a wheelchair. He now uses a walking stick and orthotics. 

Mr Akehurst said he admires the NHS and its importance in society, emotionally telling how his own experience under its care solidified his social beliefs. 

“I had a life-threatening experience and have learned a lot about the impacts and the NHS,” he explained. “I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my life anyway, but this setback made me a far stronger person. It’s what drives me forward and wants me to ensure people get the correct level of care.”

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Political vow to North Durham residents

The father-of-two says he is doing three canvassing sessions per day across the patch and there are still many undecided voters across the constituency. “I’m fighting like it’s a marginal seat.” 

He said he admired the work of Kevan Jones, former Labour MP for North Durham, and wants to replicate his dedication to the area. He said: “The voice of the County Durham constituencies will be listened to in Westminster. I want to deliver hard results, so the next time I canvas I can feel satisfied that I did everything I could to change people’s lives. 

“If I don’t deliver the assiduous casework and tackle local issues I will be out in five years. I’m not complacent about it.”