AS you may have seen, The Northern Echo was pleased to welcome Sir Keir Starmer, the leader of the Labour Party, when he dropped into our office in Darlington yesterday.

Indeed, we'd welcome any leader who made the time to visit us.

Unrushed, he spent more than an hour talking to staff and local students about all aspects of their lives and his plans to make them better.

Our politicians spend so much of their time wrapped up in the rarefied bubble of Westminster where every twist and turn of the Rwanda ping-pong, or every barometer reading of who’s up and who’s down, obsesses their every waking minute that it was good to see someone here in the real world meeting real people.

Between us, we raised some grassroots concerns that we think are uppermost in local people’s minds – not how little a Conservative minister on television seemed to know about two African countries but things like the future for 750 train-building jobs at Aycliffe, or how we can end the scourge of knife crime that is scarring and killing our young people, or how we improve our mental health services, or how expensive so many people are finding modern life, and whether the Labour Party has really changed enough to re-connect to an area that has traditionally been its heartland but which turned its back on Jeremy Corbyn in 2019.

He was engaged and engaging, and as Labour is 20 points ahead in the polls, he may well be in Downing Street by the end of the year and we may well have a new set of MPs to get to know. It really is an astonishing turnaround from just four-and-a-half years ago when Boris Johnson swept all before him.

Mr Starmer’s biggest test so far comes next week: support for the Tories is ebbing away, but has his Labour Party changed enough to win back this area’s hearts and minds? We shall see at the ballot box on Thursday…