A golfer drives his buggy past SSI Steelworks, which shutdown in 2015. All pictures by Rich Wiles

How Labour Lost the Working Class

For a hundred years Teesside was the steel capital of the world and a Labour heartland. Now, for the first time in generations, it's turning blue.

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Jun 4 2017, 11:00am

A golfer drives his buggy past SSI Steelworks, which shutdown in 2015. All pictures by Rich Wiles

A sombre mood clouds the northern town of Middlesbrough. This region takes football very seriously, and last night their team was relegated from the Premier League. Tonight, in a pub near the train station, a man performs The Mavericks' "Dance the Night Away" on the karaoke to an audience of eight or nine, including a group of three young lads, an elderly couple sitting in silence, a girl smoking outside but listening through the window, and me. He doesn't look at the lyrics on the screen – he knows them. His eyes are closed, and as his gravelly voice misses almost every note it gives the 90s hit a weird shade of melancholia.

The town has had to deal with one shock already this week. Three days before I arrived, Labour-dominated Tees Valley (a combined authority of Middlesbrough, Darlington, Hartlepool, Redcar and Cleveland, and Stockton-on-Tees) rocked political expectations by electing a Tory Mayor. It was the latest example of a strange pattern of disconnect between how the people in the North East feel and how commentators and elected representatives think people in the North East feel. Teesside, especially, is a region where the electorate voted resoundingly to leave the EU, but every local Labour MP and newspaper backed remain.

Last month, Labour's Tom Blenkinsop resigned from his role as MP for Middlesbrough South & Cleveland East, citing differences with Jeremy Corbyn, plunging his former constituency into doubt. It's been Labour since it formed in 1997, but with a majority of only 2,268 votes it has now become one of the Tories' top northern targets. And it isn't the only one. Hartlepool, Darlington, Stockton North and even Sedgefield – Tony Blair's former constituency – all suddenly look a little vulnerable. With most local Labour MPs having expressed disdain for Corbyn in the last year, and UKIP votes expected to fold back to the Conservatives, the Tories finally have their eyes on draining some of the red lake in the north. "We really are now on the brink of a once in a generation change to the political landscape," wrote Matt Westcott for local newspaper The Northern Echo.

The question is: where are all these Tory voters coming from, or: where have all the Labour voters gone?

Wind turbines fill the skyline as an elderly woman walks alongside the sea front in Redcar.

Once upon a time, Teesside was the centre of the industrial world. Ironstone had been discovered in the Cleveland Hills, which fuelled the growth of a steel industry, and its prosperity generated the identity, economy and politics that has dominated this region ever since. The first major hub in the area was Middlesbrough, which grew from a hamlet of less than 30 in the early 1800s, to a town of almost 100,000 by 1901. Even by American goldrush standards it remains one of civilisation's boomiest ever boomtowns.

For many years Teesside set the world price for steel, as it built bridges from London to Denmark, Sudan to Zimbabwe, India to China. In 1881, the Scottish journalist Sir Hugh Gilzean Reid wrote:

"The iron of Eston has diffused itself all over the world. It furnishes the railways of the world; it runs by Neapolitan and papal dungeons; it startles the bandit in his haunt in Cicilia; it crosses over the plains of Africa; it stretches over the plains of India. It has crept out of the Cleveland Hills where it has slept since Roman days, and now like a strong and invincible serpent, coils itself around the world."

Later, when British company Imperial Chemical Industries (known as ICI) set up shop here it further diversified this region's role as Britain's engine room. If you'd stood on Corporation Road back then, it would have been packed with men in donkey jackets waiting at bus stops to make their way to the chemical plants and steelworks. The horizon quickly transformed into a giant's playground of pipes, chimneys, cranes and towering structures; bursting flames, smoke plumes and blinking lights. The director Ridley Scott grew up around here, and based the opening shot of Blade Runner on what he saw: an industrial dystopia of hellfire and power, as awe-inspiring as it was terrifying. Even now, the sandstone ashlar of Middlesbrough's gothic town hall is stained dark from the fumes of those expansive days.

Dave Allport started working for ICI during this period at their plant in Stockton-on-Tees. He'd left school at 15 years old with no qualifications and was legally too young to be an apprentice, so ICI employed him in their internal postal service as a messenger boy. When he turned 16, they paid for him to go to college, after which he worked as an industrial plumber, gradually rising through the ranks.

"They gave us everything: dentists, opticians, car maintenance and repair – they even helped me pay the mortgage on my house," he explains. "It would all come out of your salary, a little a month without interest. If you were off sick for over six weeks they would send someone round to see how you were." Even the local football team, Billingham Synthonia (named after a fertiliser they manufactured), was set up by ICI and played their matches in a sports complex within the plant.

Back then, political divisions were clear and pronounced. If you wore overalls you were a worker and voted Labour. If you didn't wear overalls you were management and voted Conservative. Neither group socialised, other than to take instructions. "It wasn't like it is now," says Dave, "this is an alien situation."

From the 70s onwards, this region was ravaged by deindustrialisation. Between the mid 70s and 80s, a quarter of all jobs here disappeared as chemical, steel and heavy manufacturing was decimated by globalisation, technological advancement and Margaret Thatcher. Unemployment rocketed from 2 percent to 21 percent, and Teesside's 150-year long role as Britain's "infant Hercules" began to crumble away quicker than anyone thought possible.

Chemicals remain today, and the industry remains a beacon of light in the area, but plants that once employed thousands now often employ hundreds as automation continues its unstoppable ascent. In 2015, 2,200 jobs were lost as Teesside Steelworks closed its doors for the last time after 100 years. Its owners at the time, SSI, cited the sharp drop in steel prices as the cause, after the market was flooded by cheap Chinese steel. Last year, a drone flew over the abandoned site in Redcar and captured footage of the site as it stands. Zombie-like, its portrait of inactivity is perhaps more dystopian now in its desolation than it was during its heydey in Ridley Scott's youth.

Drone footage of the Redcar blast furnace

Mark Hill had been employed as a production operator at SSI in Redcar for four years when it closed, working on the concourse turning liquid steel into slabs. Now, after receiving funding from a taskforce set up to help those who lost their jobs, he runs a jerk chicken shop in the Gresham area of Middlesbrough. When I walk in to meet him at 3PM one afternoon there are fresh patties on the counter and "3PM" by dancehall star Alandon is booming through a speaker in the corner. Mark tells me business is "not good and not bad". Teesside has an above average new business birth rate, but it also has an above average new business death rate.

Mark and his co-workers believed Brussels was to blame for the closure of SSI. "We had been struggling and asking the government for help for months, but they were saying because of EU rules the government can't bail out a private company. Towards the end, everyone in the steelworks was frustrated about the EU. They would all talk about how things were good before EU."

It's truth, it wasn't as simple as that. It was actually the British government, spearheaded by George Osborne, who vetoed the EU from putting tougher sanctions on China, in a bid to keep the UK in China's good books as a deal was being struck on China's investment into a new power station in Hinkley Point, Somerset. So while the US was protecting their industry with penalties of 267pc on Chinese steel, Britain's continued vetos kept the EU penalties at just 13pc. With a shift due to start at 6PM that evening, Mark received a call at 2PM to say there was no more work; it was over. He wasn't even allowed onsite to empty his locker.

"It was a business that was feeding all of Teesside," says Mark. "You had 2,000 people looking for jobs at the same time. Most guys had been working there all their life, so it was all they knew. We were getting put on courses left, right and centre to see what we could turn to for the future, but nobody could get a job. All of a sudden there was way more people than work. The ones that did get work were making 90 percent less than we did in the steelworks."

Labour cannot win an election purely on students and metropolitan liberals, and Mark has all the hallmarks of the exact voter they must win over. He does usually vote Labour, but won't be taking part in this election. He says most of his friends now think politics has become a meaningless exercise for them. But it isn't because of Jeremy Corbyn; in fact, he connects with the new Labour leader. "The Tories seem like the people that every time they go to their fridge it's fully loaded," smiles Mark. "But Jeremy Corbyn looks like a guy like me. He goes to the cupboard and he thinks, 'Oh god, what can I eat this bread with now?' He looks like he can feel what we say when we say we hurting."

So why won't he vote any more? "It's pointless, my brother. They voted in Cameron not so long ago, and he left. He didn't ask our permission if he could leave, he just walked out. Now Theresa May takes over and she decides to have a snap election, even though I only voted three years ago. Someone changes their mind and forces me to make another decision? No. Clearly, regardless of what I say it doesn't matter."

Unlike Mark, when the chemical firm ICI left Teesside in 2007 and Dave Allport was made redundant, he was old enough to qualify for his pension and could retire. He tells me he lives a modest life in Stockton-on-Tees and classes himself as a left-wing socialist. He voted for Britain to leave the EU because it is undemocratic, and he likes Corbyn because he feels like he wants the best for people. "But in the event that he resigns and a new leader is elected, and it's not to my liking," he warns me, "I will leave the Labour party."

"The opinion is: My life is shit anyway, and it is going to be just as shit afterwards. It just doesn't cross their mind to go and vote."

You don't need to walk for long down the streets of Dave's native Stockton to see it is a conflicted town; a candid portrait of inequality in parts of Britain that successive governments have left to fester. It was voted the fifth best place to live in the UK in 2015, the same year Channel Four broadcast the second series of Benefits Street from it. In Stockton South, large private housing estates like Hartburn or Ingleby Barwick (nicknamed "toy town" by locals) spread out into the countryside; closed off middle class utopias with multi-million pound leisure facilities under construction. The MP here is the Conservatives' James Wharton, once Minister for the mythical "Northern Powerhouse" and the only Tory MP on Teesside.

A few miles away in Stockton North, it's a far different story. The death of industry has left a vacuum of employment and purpose. Call centres filled that for a while, but even they left in pursuit of cheaper workers abroad. As a local authority, Stockton has the largest life expectancy gap of anywhere else in England. A man here in the town centre will, on average, live around 17 years less than a man living just a few miles away in Hartburn or Ingleby Barwick. For women, it is also the largest gap in the country, at 12 years. Labour still has a majority in Stockton North, but since the highs of 1997 their share has dropped by almost 10,000 votes.

For the last 18 months, Dave has volunteered at his local food bank in a church down the road, every Friday from 10AM to 1PM. There are at least 18 emergency food providers in borough. "People round here think it's full of asylum seekers," he tells me. "It's not. It's mostly young white British lads, between the age of 25 to 30. Worn clothing, bad state of health. Some ask for food that doesn't need cooking because they have no means to cook it; they only have a kettle."

Kayleigh Garthwaite, a researcher at Newcastle University, spent two years working at the same food bank as Dave as part of an academic project funded by the European Trust. Last June, she published a book about her findings titled Hunger Pains, and now spends her time studying Stockton's inequality gap by splitting her time between the most and least affluent areas of the town.

"In Hartburn, you find your typical Tories," she tells me, "but in the town centre, where people would have traditionally voted Labour, most I talk to are now leaning towards, 'Well, they're all the same.'" The day after Brexit, not a single person Kayleigh spoke to in the food bank had voted. Stockton itself had a high turn out, but clearly not from young people trapped in the low-pay-no-pay-cycle, juggling numerous zero hour contract jobs, seeking emergency food, facing jobcentre sanctions and drowning in debt. But she disagrees with this being labelled as "voter apathy". "I wouldn't use that word. It's more that people don't feel any connection to politics," she says. "The opinion is: My life is shit anyway, and it is going to be just as shit afterwards. It just doesn't cross their mind to go and vote."

This is a hard truth all post-industrial regions need to wrestle with when rebuilding: that industry provided more than just jobs and a flow of money through the local supply chain. Unlike the service economy, it gave the young and unqualified working classes the path to a reasonably rewarding career, one that could give them not only a modest living but a feeling of purpose and contribution. A career that meant they could probably afford a house, a decent used car and even go on a European holiday once a year. "If people left school like I did now, they would be poverty-stricken," says Dave. "Unless you are academic, then you are destined for a life of no prospects."

The collective identity in these working environments strongly encouraged political participation. The atomisation of a sizeable chunk of the working class – as they moved from unionised industries into zero hours contracts and low paid insecure service sector jobs – is a problem that disproportionately haunts Labour. The 2017 manifesto has policies that could help people in these situations: they have promised to scrap the benefits sanction regime and the bedroom tax, outlaw zero hour contracts, reinstate housing benefit for under-21s and re-shape Universal Credit. But when day-to-day survival is your key priority, it's hard to think about long-term political ideologies, and Labour – or any party in Britain in 2017 – is yet to come up with a solution that connects and energises this section of society. I hadn't yet found the lesser spotted northern working class Tory that the mainstream media keep shouting about. Instead, what I found across parts of Teesside was that those whose lives have been most damaged by Tory policy – and are therefore most likely to vote for Labour – are also the least likely to vote at all any more.

In the Gresham area of Middlesborough, a man pushes a wheelchair laden with shopping bags down a residential street.

At 2AM on a summer's night in Coulby Newham, a large housing estate in the south of Middlesbrough, a loud alarm began to ring into the night. Labour Councillor Geoff Cole and his partner awoke to the glow of flames flickering through their bedroom curtains. At first, they thought the house was on fire, but it wasn't – it was the car. By the time they'd got to the front door a firefighter was there ushering them to stay inside.

Three days and ten minutes later, just a few miles away, another car went ablaze outside another councillor's home. In the last five years, six cars owned by local councillors have been torched in the area, the most recent attack occurring in March. "Clearly," Councillor Cole told local newspaper The Gazette, "there are those who are not happy with the way the town is run." As one voter told me on the bus into town: "There's a nastiness in the air."

In February this year, Councillor Cole resigned from his post in Coulby Newham and it forced a by-election. On the 14th of April, the ward – which in 2015 voted for a Labour MP, three Labour councillors and a Labour mayor – elected a Tory councillor, the first in Middlesbrough for over 20 years. "Let down by the far left," tweeted Middlesbrough South & East Cleveland's Labour MP Tom Blenkinsop, putting the blame squarely on Jeremy Corbyn, "Time for new leadership."

Middlesbrough is split across two constituencies: Middlesbrough (a safe Labour seat overseen by Andy McDonald) and Middlesbrough South & East Cleveland (which contains Coulby Newham). MS&EC is a large constituency with a contrasting mix of solid Labour neighbourhoods and more affluent Tory areas. As a constituency with one of the highest votes for Leave, one of the smallest Labour majorities and a pool of 7,000 UKIP voters potentially looking for a new home, it's all of Labour's worst nightmares captured in one seat. And on the 9th of May, UKIP made this a whole lot worse by deciding to stand down their candidate.

At 24, Jacob Young is the Tory boy wonder responsible for the shock result in Coulby Newham. He's also the least Tory Tory I've ever met. Born and bred in Middlesbrough, he's a technician at a local chemical plant, the son of a steelworker, member of Unite the Union and comes from a family of seven, most of whom vote Labour. His grandad helped build the Angel of the North, and when he told his sister he was campaigning for the Conservatives, her response was: "Oh no."

Since the miracle of Coulby Newham, he has been chosen as the candidate for Middlesbrough in the forthcoming election. He won't win against Labour's Andy McDonald – although I imagine he will chip away at the majority – but he's indicative of how many voters up here are being wooed by a new species of young northern Tories who don't really look, talk or act like Tories. It's something that was evident again earlier this month, when 30-year-old Conservative Ben Houchen unexpectedly won the Tees Valley Metro Mayor election on the decidedly un-Conservative single issue of nationalising the struggling local airport.

I meet Jacob for dinner at a restaurant in the town centre. While we wait to order, an elderly couple walk past the window dressed in their Sunday best and the woman gives Jacob an encouraging wave. "She was out campaigning with me at the weekend," he laughs. You can see why older voters would be fond of him. During our conversation, he never refers to Theresa May as anything less than "Missus May", and often says things like, "Well I do like Ann Widdecombe." If I had to describe his manner in two words it would be "polite grandson".

Jacob first became politically active at the age of 17, when his grandmother – a staunch Labour supporter – took him to a hustings ahead of the 2010 general election. The late Sir Stuart Bell was Labour MP at the time, and he had earned a reputation for failing to attend hustings, hold surgeries or even answer his phone (The Gazette ran a story in which they rang him 100 times without answer). When Bell failed to turn up yet again that night, Jacob was incensed. He didn't join the Conservative Party immediately, he tells me, but he realised his first vote would be for them.

Or, at least, this is the story Jacob tells me. It's remarkably similar to a 2011 documentary called ToryBoy the Movie, in which a former Labour voter runs against Sir Stuart Bell in Middlesbrough to prove how incompetent he has become. Bell still won the seat that year by over 10,000 votes.

"Look at me," says Jacob, "I'm a process operator in the chemical industry – the Labour party was made for people like me. But Labour in Middlesbrough have had carte blanche for too long. People feel taken for granted. So if I can get involved in my local area as a Conservative, then at least it forces the local Labour party to work for once to win that seat. I won by 33 votes in Coulby Newham, but I could have easily lost by 33 votes. The truth is, I forced Labour to get out and start knocking on doors again, and that's something they hadn't done around here in a long time."

Saturday afternoon shoppers queue for buses opposite the Cleveland Shopping Centre on Grange Road in Middlesborough city centre.

In 2015, The Guardian's John Harris followed a small group of Tories as they tried to canvass Teesside in the run-up to the election. Jacob was one of them. In the footage, they go door-to-door, conveying a message of rising economic success, property ownership and self-help. But their promises of rent-to-buy fell on the deaf ears of those who lived hand-to-mouth. Two years later, things have changed dramatically. Frustration at the local Labour council, Brexit and, more specifically, immigration, has finally given the Tories something to discuss on the doors of North East England.

As Ed Cox of the think-tank IPPR said after the EU referendum, "The people spoke. But in the north, they shouted." The reason seems obvious: "Immigration. Without a doubt," says John, a former NHS worker who I meet on a bench overlooking fountains outside the town hall. "There was a time when I knew my friends would all vote Labour. Now it's totally different. People aren't engaged in politics. We're not talking about nationalising trains or anything up here. It really is just about immigration. I'm seeing ordinary working people like me turning to Tory or UKIP. Lads who grew up a hundred yards away from me, and now they are like Alf Garnett at his worst."

Like most regions, anti-immigrant hysteria on Teesside has a pattern. "It's historic," says Tosh Warwick, a Middlesbrough historian and Leeds Beckett Lecturer who I meet in the Teesside Archives. "It happened in the 19th century when you had Irish migrants coming here and 'taking our jobs'. In 1914, you had anti-German and anti-Italian riots in Middlesbrough as well. And you had it in 1961 with the Cannon Street riots, which targeted the Asian communities. It's part of a historic trajectory of anxieties about migrants combining with a loss of jobs, and you get these shifts to the right."

Dr Steve Hall is a Professor of Criminology at Teesside University, and he's recently co-authored a book titled Rise of the Right in which he interviewed hundreds of working class men and women who now affiliate with right wing attitudes, to investigate how working class politics was transforming. "There was a time when race relations in Britain were being improved by political solidarity," he tells me. "There was still a lot of racism about, but things were on the right trajectory. Since then, the working class has virtually collapsed, and it finds itself in a position of chronic insecurity."

Primarily, Hall thinks many working class voters aren't voting for any of the parties on offer. But his book also presents a theory for the sizeable portion who have begun to slide to the right of politics. Hall thinks it is deeply connected to the political left's abandonment of traditional working-class communities, their failure to understand the experiences that are affecting old industrial areas of Britain like Teesside.

"The metropolitan middle class left aren't interested in the working class at all any more," explains Dr Hall. "In fact, what Brexit showed was that there is an utter contempt for them: they are stupid, racist, illiterate. When in fact the working class is a very diverse group. Some are clever, some are racists, some are misogynists, but most are just everyday normal people who want a job. Now, we see that a certain portion of this section of society don't see that happening under a Labour government any more. Instead, rightly or wrongly, they are being drawn to the party of business. They aren't Tories in the sense of their beliefs; they don't have fundamental Tory values. They just think they are the party that can provide them with jobs."

A student at Middlesbrough College in the college's landscaped gardens

In many parts of Britain there is a perception of North East Labour voters as no-nonsense types lacking in nuance, and this has translated into mainstream media election coverage, depicting Corbyn and his dreamy ideas as far too intellectual and idealist to ever appeal to Labour's heartlands. And yet many of the current or former Labour voters I meet don't fit the bill. They are not abdicating or weary of the party because they see Jeremy Corbyn as a weak and scruffy terrorist sympathiser. Those voters exist, of course (a very reluctant Tory called Ken told me Corbyn was pretty much the only reason he isn't voting Labour). But the political thinking of many others is that Corbyn's ideas speak to them, however Labour went wrong a long time ago. And there always seems to be a recurring factor in this.

"When Tony Blair came in, most people up here just thought, 'These are Tories. They aren't Labour people,'" says Dave. "Why vote New Labour when you can vote Tory?" says John. "They were just champagne socialists," says Trevor, 67. "After that, most of my friends turned to UKIP, and now, with Brexit, it's all about the Tories." Many here believed in Blair's vision for hope and change when he arrived in 1997; they believed in a cabinet filled with a disproportionate amount of North East MPs (Mandelson, Miliband, Milburn et al), they believed that finally they'd be rescued from the woes of Thatcherism, but they were quickly disillusioned.

There was no hope, there was no change, and Labour stopped being a party for the working class. Membership shrunk throughout Blair's terms in office. "Not everything they did was bad," says Graeme, 43, who works in Middlesbrough but comes from Hartlepool. He voted for Blair twice, before – he tells me – he became enlightened. "But they didn't address the inequality in society, and helped create a massive gulf between the haves and the have nots. These days, I don't think the have nots up here realise quite how much the haves have. The fact this wasn't addressed by a decade of Labour was heartbreaking for people around here. They just weren't a true socialist government."

Like the working classes in rust belt America who turned to Trump after Obama's mandate of faith and aspiration saw their lives continue to stagnate, it seems something similar is happening with Labour voters in the North East. I put this question of Blair to former Labour MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, Tom Blenkinsop, when we meet at a coffee shop in a redeveloped area of Middlesbrough town centre, and he shakes his head. "It's just become fashionable to slag Tony Blair off." Blenkinsop strongly opposes Corbyn but was at the Labour party manifesto signing last night. He tells me he kept his head down, didn't oppose anything and just enjoyed the free sandwiches and coffee. He has a rosy outlook for Labour on the 8th of June: "We're going to lose heavily, it will be worse than 1983 and my old seat will go Tory."

Blenkinsop agrees that Labour have become detached from the working classes, but believes their current incarnation can only worsen it. Throughout our conversation he gestures disapprovingly at the picture of Corbyn on the front of the i newspaper next to us, and describes his leadership as like putting the bass player up on stage to sing. He says Labour has been hijacked, and describes Corbyn's office as a group of "privately educated posh kids telling me what Labour is". I ask him if it played on his mind when he stepped down from Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, that he was probably sacrificing the seat to the Tories? "I've been a critic of Corbyn from the start," he shoots back. "It makes me laugh that people think I'm a backstabber or a traitor. I made it very clear before he was elected that he was unsuitable. So I can't hand on heart stand as an MP under him. That would be a lie."

While Blenkinsop decided to step aside, timing it so that it wouldn't cause a by-election, most Corbyn detractors in the Tees Valley area chose to continue. In Darlington, Labour's Jenny Chapman said last June that Labour cannot win there with Corbyn in charge, and Stockton North's Alex Cunningham resigned from his role as shadow minister for the natural environment when Corbyn won his second leadership contest. It's hard not to think that this could be having an effect on undecided voters. It's one thing to vote for an MP whose party isn't in power, it's another to vote for an MP whose party isn't in power and who doesn't get on with their own leader.

When I arrived on Teesside at the start of the week, the first thing to catch my eye was a long line of poetry painted onto a wall across the junction from the Middlesbrough train station entrance. It read: "We built the world, Every metropolis, Came from, Ironopolis." This old sense of pride about the region still fills the air. Voters young and old frequently went to great lengths to remind me that this is an underdog town, one that has had to fight for everything its got. When I ask how Teesside has done under seven years of Tory rule, they say it's succeeds "in spite" of it.

"Did you know this town's motto is Ermius?" asks Rose, a 24-year-old who works at the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art. It translates as "We shall be." We shall be, as in, you're yet to see the best of Middlesbrough; as in, you just wait, Middlesbrough is going to be something… Something truly special. "We are driven by the way in which we react to bad things," she tells me. "We pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and do something extraordinary in response." But while many here are optimistic and hopeful, for large sections of society this question of what exactly Middlesbrough shall now be has lingered for too long. Erimus, yes. But erimus what?

The shutdown SSI Steelworks dominates the horizon as a dog walker leaves the Fisherman's Association Huts in South Gare

On my final day, Theresa May descends on the North East. My Twitter timeline lights up with activity about where she would be, but back in Coulby Newham very few seemed to care or even know she was around. "Right," was the most illuminating response I could get when informing voters outside the Parkway shopping centre of her imminent arrival. Unlike Margaret Thatcher, who in 1987 at least had the decency to come and wander through the post-industrial wastelands her policies had created during her famous "walk in the wilderness", May avoided Teesside altogether. She didn't visit Middlesbrough, Stockton-on-Tees, Hartlepool, Redcar & Cleveland, Darlington or this top Tory target of Middlesbrough South & East Cleveland. (Last Thursday she did finally pop in on Teesside but once again steered clear of Middlesbrough and Stockton-on-Tees in favour of the small market town of Guisborough.)

Outside Teesside University, I ask a 33-year-old voter called John: who exactly was the last major politician he can remember bothering to come and speak to the people of Teesside? He takes a long puzzled pause and then his eyebrows rise. "Oh, I remember actually because I went to watch them speak and it was brilliant," he says. "It was Jeremy Corbyn."

@joezadeh

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