Tue. Jul 5th, 2022


The bombshell news that nearly two-thirds of voters in the north-eastern constituency of Sunderland had voted for Brexit – which trickled in during the early hours of June 24 2016 – foretold the result of the referendum. The pound promptly crashed and Remain’s hopes of victory faded away. US actress Lindsay Lohan, glued to the coverage, was even prompted to ask on Twitter: “Where’s Sunderland?”

The symbolic constituency may be about to surprise again. Once renowned for its shipbuilding, Sunderland has regenerated with a further education drive and small business boom. The vast barren factories are now swish offices. The end of the heavy industry is also overturning its politics, which has been redoubtably Labor since the inception of the city council in 1973.

It feels almost inconceivable that Labor may lose control of Sunderland in the May 5 local elections. In 2019, as many of Labor’s traditional “red wall” heartlands fell to the Conservatives in Boris Johnson’s landslide win, Sunderland’s clung on. Its incumbent Labor MPs saw their majorities slashed, but the party held every seat. In 2021, the Tories gained six council seats and Labor lost nine.

Now they hope to finish the job. Labor holds 43 seats, a third of which are up for grabs in May. The Tories are trailing on 19 seats, with the Liberal Democrats holding 12. If the opposition parties retain and gain seven, they will oust Labor. One local Tory reckons they are well-placed to win “if they can win the second seats in the wards they broke into”.

Anthony Mullen, leader of the Sunderland Tories, hopes the council will fall into “no overall control” for the first time. “This is not a straightforward story about Labor versus Conservative, it is a story of local actors who are either for or against the current administration. The Green party is helping strategically target Labor seats and we work closely with the Lib Dems, ”he says. “With one final push, we are convinced we will bring it down.”

Mullen points to some extraordinary events in Sunderland’s Labor party, which has been tarnished by two former local councilors, Paul Middleton and Thomas Wright, who were sentenced for child sex offenses. Another was successfully sued after branding a member of the public a paedophile.

Were the Tories to make gains in Sunderland, it would mark another step in the post-Brexit realignment of British politics. Whether in Sandwell in the West Midlands or Sheffield in South Yorkshire, May’s results will test whether Johnson can still take ground from Labor following the “partygateScandal over lockdown gatherings in Downing Street.

Lord Robert Hayward, a Tory peer and local elections expert, says the war in Ukraine has deflected attention from Johnson’s domestic problems. Tories have “crawled upwards” in the polls over the past few weeks, he says, predicting that if the elections were today, they would not quite match 2021’s stellar results but still fare respectably. Yet he adds that if partygate returns to the agenda, for example if Johnson is fined by Scotland Yard, “the Tories will be in for a much rougher time”.

Even if Johnson chips away at Labor’s red wall, the Conservative results further south may be less positive. The party’s strategists are pessimistic about holding on to Wandsworth and Westminster councils, two totemic Tory pillars in London that the party has firmly held for decades. The loss of the former – a bastion of Thatcherite low-tax efficiency since 1978 – would come as a particular blow.

But gains outside the capital matter more as this is where the next general election will be won or lost. May 5 has been billed as a make or break moment for the prime minister, but it may end up posing bigger questions for opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer. As one Tory strategist puts it, Labor should be returning to where they were before 2021. “They ought to be hoovering up seats right across the country.”

One of Starmer’s closest allies is downbeat. “Our polling numbers are very soft and I’m skeptical we’re going to make much progress,” the shadow cabinet minister said. “Once again, Boris has been proven fortunate by dreadful events.” Just as Sunderland was the place to watch in 2016, it will be once again in 2022.

sebastian.payne@ft.com



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