Election focus: Middlesbrough South and Cleveland

The looming demise of Corus’ steelmaking plant is dominating politics on Teesside – and helping raise hopes of an improbable Tory gain.

By Alex Stevenson

Corus’ Teesside Cast Products plant is not in Ashok Kumar’s Middlesbrough South and Cleveland constituency. Nor are most of its 1,900 workers, who live in Vera Baird’s next-door Redcar.

Nevertheless in political terms the focus is firmly resting on Kumar’s seat. Conservative insiders say it represents their best chance of making inroads in Labour’s north-eastern manufacturing heartland. The Tories need a nine per cent swing to overturn Labour’s notional 8,061 majority. If they get it, it won’t be looking good for a fourth Labour term.

The stakes, as both Kumar and his Conservative challenger Paul Bristow demonstrate, are extremely high. They help explain why an issue which should be another MP’s affair spills over into the seat which matters come polling day.

“Nothing I can say that will explain the huge blow that this would be to the people of that area. It’s iconic in this area,” Bristow says. Kumar agrees. He talks of the plant as a great symbol, boasting one of the biggest blast furnaces in Europe. “It’s the lifeblood of Teesside’s economy. I can’t put it any stronger than that.”

No surprise, therefore, that the plant’s closure matters. How the government handles this issue is going to dominate local politics as the general election approaches.

There is a curious etiquette about avoiding politicising the Corus plant which both Kumar and Bristow follow carefully.

As the Tory challenger puts it: “This is bigger than party politics. Ashok and I can disagree on a number of issues and so forth. When it comes to saving these steelworks, we should try and be bigger than making political points.”

As the Labour incumbent puts it: “This isn’t about trying to score points. It’s about trying to save the works.”

Once these preliminaries are over with the pair gets down to some serious politicking. In close to three months’ time their constituents will be choosing between them, after all.

Kumar adds: “If he’s willing to ask George Osborne to allocate hundreds of millions of pounds [to save the plant] then I want to join hands with him. He’s got to ask that from his government.”

There’s no doubt making these statements is, in a grim way, rather satisfying. “Bristow’s got to come up with an alternative,” Kumar says triumphantly. If the Tory won’t, he argues, Bristow not doing his bit to help his constituents out. Osborne’s talk of spending cuts doesn’t appear to fit.

Bristow is unimpressed. He responds by deftly dodging the question, pointing out that what the Conservatives would do is “neither here nor there”. “These jobs are on the line now,” he responds. “The plant will be mothballed way before then. What Ashok needs to do, if he’s got this line to the Tata board, is to be acting now.”

The bigger picture

Despite the hard work of both candidates it looks as if they are fighting a losing battle. Kumar and other Labour MPs in the area met with Gordon Brown over the festive period to plead for him to help. Amid the swirl of seasonal snow and Cabinet-level politics, it seems the government is deeply uninterested in keeping the plant alive by providing the hundreds of millions Kumar is seeking.

Instead Peter Mandelson’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Bis) is looking beyond the closure to new beginnings for the north-east. A spokesperson said the government was looking to find “alternative work or uses for the Teesside plant”. She talked of a brave new world of low-carbon industries and £60 million for “new investment projects”. In the government’s eyes, TCP appears to belong to the past.

In this harsh light of reality the question of whether the Conservatives will make an unexpected gain in Middlesbrough South and Cleveland seems to gather steam. Workers, apparently abandoned by the Labour government, may be tempted into the Tories’ welcoming arms.

“There’s huge anger on the doorstep. People just feel they’ve been let down, ignored,” Bristow says. The long relationship between Labour and Teesside may be on its last legs. “It’s been taken for granted. People are anxious for change.”

Fears about further job losses at Corus come on the back of a tough period for the manufacturing sector, which has itself declined from 20% to 12.5% of the economy’s overall GDP. In the north-east over 20 people are applying for each job vacancy.

As a Conservative party spokesman for the whole of the north-east put it to politics.co.uk earlier this month: “The most common theme we are hearing on the doorstep is that people feel that they have been taken for granted by Gordon Brown and Labour and they do not want more of the same.”

There are some indications progress is being made. Last year a Conservative mayor was elected on North Tyneside and the Tories were the only party to increase their share of the vote at the general election. This could all make a difference in Middlesbrough South and Cleveland.

If one thing’s clear, however, it’s that the general election in this seat is being played out in the shadow of the TCP plant.

Only yesterday the manufacturing Community Union launched a scathing attack on the Conservatives, accusing the Tories of “ruling out anything which might help” after the party came out against regional development agencies.

“The Conservatives want to cut without talking about the good that these programmes are doing or the repercussions,” a spokesman said.

RDAs, creations of the Labour government, have put £3 million into struggling steel companies, the union’s general secretary Michael Leahy says.

Mr Leahy added: “It is clear that Tory party policy is deaf to the needs of British manufacturing. David Cameron needs to explain why he wants to cut the programmes that are supporting vital British industries.”

Kumar, it seems, is not being undermined by Labour’s traditional allies.

The coming fight between Kumar and Bristow is going to be a fascinating one. The Conservatives are always going to struggle in this type of seat and, without the support of the unions, the ousting of Kumar seems unlikely. But recession, unemployment and anger at a Labour government should not be discounted. Disillusioned voters might find themselves choosing between whom they support least rather than best.

Not that the general election is the primary concern at present. The looming demise of the Corus plant matters is much more important to voters, whichever candidate they eventually back.