Election 2017

Has the North East forgotten Margaret Thatcher?

Andrew Jones and Liam Foster-Jones

The Conservatives are hoping to win back seats in the North-East of England on 8 June - has the party finally escaped the shadow of Margaret Thatcher which helped make much of the region a no-go area for them?

"Is it Hillary Clinton?"

Daniel Aston, 20, is puzzling over a picture of a woman who looms very large in the history of his home town.

"It's Margaret something," offers 19-year-old Andrew Jones. Only Liam Foster-Jones, of the three unemployed friends, seems certain about who the imperious features and swept-back helmet of hair might belong to.

"It's Margaret Thatcher," he says.

The name doesn't seem to mean much to them.

It would have been a different story 36 years ago, when the Thatcher government closed Consett's steel works, with the loss of 3,700 jobs.

The devastation inflicted on this remote town high on the edge of the Pennines, where unemployment soared to 36%, made the national news and became a symbol of the harsh medicine the Thatcher government thought it had to administer to Britain's heavy industries.

It sowed the seeds for the electoral wipe out the Conservatives would experience across large parts of Northern England and Scotland, which it still trying to recover from today.

Thatcher and "the Tories" remain dirty words to the former steel workers in Consett but few young people I spoke to could recognise her and those that did regarded her as a distant historical figure.

Image copyright Other
Image caption Tim Farron and Theresa May were defeated by Labour's Hilary Armstrong in 1992

"I don't really have an opinion [about her] but my dad doesn't like her because she shut down the steel works," said 20-year-old Adam Stokoe.

"So my dad has strong opinions about that. I'm not from that time period so I don't really think about it that way. I only think about now. What's going to benefit me."

Consett has never had a Conservative MP but the Tory vote held up surprisingly well in other parts of the North-East while Thatcher was in power. In 1983, the party took 34% of North East votes, and had five MPs.

It was only after she left office that anti-Tory attitudes really hardened, with the party's share of the vote slumping by 10%. It currently has just three MPs in the region.

Theresa May is attempting to change that on 8 June and has urged traditional Labour supporters to "lend" her their vote.

Image caption Alex Blackham: 'May is the only person for the job'

She will have experienced at first hand how difficult it is to break the voting habits of a lifetime in this part of the world when she stood for election in North West Durham in 1992.

(By a strange coincidence, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron was also standing for Parliament for the first time that year in the same constituency.)

They still remember Mrs May at Consett Working Men's Club - because, claims the barman, they wouldn't let her through the door.

It had nothing to do with her politics, he adds, it's just that the club is one of a tiny handful left in the UK that does not admit women.

"Your wife can't chase you in here," says one regular, looking up from his racing form. He doesn't want to talk about politics.

Mrs May won 28% of the vote in North West Durham - a score that has not been beaten by a Conservative candidate there since - but although one local poll put the party in with a chance of winning on 8 June it is not high on their target list.

There was certainly little enthusiasm for Mrs May's brand of Conservatism in the town's Steel Club, although the lifelong Labour voters I spoke to were equally scathing about their traditional party of choice.

Image caption Theresa May was turned away from the men-only club, say locals

"I don't like Jeremy Corbyn. He hasn't got a brain in his head as far as I'm concerned," said Christopher Bell, a 69-year-old retired steel worker and club steward.

He and his partner, Linda, voted for Brexit in last year's referendum and are worried about the strain they say is being placed on local services by East European immigrants.

Linda, who voted UKIP in 2015, said she would not return to the Labour fold until the party was led by "somebody that's going to stand up for English people, working class people - because the Conservatives like the rich and they like to keep them rich".

Thirty miles south in Darlington, a constituency with a narrower Labour majority of just over 3,000, people seemed more receptive to the Conservative message.

The town has had a Tory MP before - Defence Secretary Michael Fallon in the 1980s - and the party has hopes of retaking the seat on 8 June.

"I will vote for Theresa May. Not necessarily because she's a Conservative but I think she's the only person for the job. Given the other options," says Alex Blackham, owner of a cafe in the town's indoor market.

"If she'd been Labour or an independent then I would have been voting for her as a person. I think that's what politics comes down to sometimes."

Image caption Clive Hinson says the North East has 'forgiven but not forgotten' Thatcher

Clive Hinson, a 59-year-old assembly line worker who was about to tuck into one of Mr Blackham's full English breakfasts, blames Thatcher for the closure of the dump truck factory he worked at in the 1980s.

But he adds: "Funnily enough, I'll be voting Conservative. Because I think Corbyn is a waste of time.

"He can't give a definitive answer on defence. He's got all these plans for spending loads of money but the figures just don't add up....so much though I don't want to vote Conservative that's the way I'm voting."

He says the North East has "forgiven but not forgotten" Thatcher, comparing the reconciliation process to what happened in Northern Ireland or South Africa. Like Mr Blackham he voted for Brexit in last year's EU referendum.

Most of the older working class people I spoke to - the traditional bedrock of Labour support in the area - needed no prompting to criticise what they saw as Jeremy Corbyn's lack of leadership ability and charisma.

He seemed to go over much better with younger, more cosmopolitan voters.

Image caption Stephen and June Lock: Torn between Labour and the Lib Dems

"I would vote Corbyn all day every day," said Stephen Lock, who runs a comic book stall in the covered market with wife June.

"He's such a man of the people by the looks of it. He's looking after the general working people. He seems to have great ideas. They may be a little outdated in the modern day, but he's not the person they're painting him out to be. They are trying to make him out to be weak and I don't think he is."

The couple returned from 13 years in France, where they had a gardening business, after the Brexit vote. "We thought we had better come back and do something else here. It's affected us quite heavily," said Stephen.

They are torn between voting Labour and Liberal Democrats - and are not impressed by what they see as the disloyalty of Labour MPs who openly criticise their leader.

"The Labour Party is shooting itself in the foot by not acting and standing as one," said June.

"You have got career politicians that are more concerned about their own personal interests than their constituents."

Image caption Josh Walker and Emily Frewin: 'Young people will vote for Corbyn'

There also appeared to real enthusiasm for Corbyn among Darlington's student population, who blame the media for portraying him in a negative light.

"You don't see a lot of coverage of, like, nice things about him," said 18-year-old Emily Frewin. "But when you actually read into it he is a nice person."

Theresa May avoids talking to the voters, she adds, but "he seems like he wants to talk to everybody, not just the rich people".

"He does seem to be getting slandered quite a lot," agrees 20-year-old software development student Josh Walker, "when he's trying to fight for us."

Image caption Darlington has had a Conservative MP before

If the Thatcher factor was ever a major impediment to a Tory revival in the North East, it has undoubtedly faded with time.

The party's tactic of detaching Theresa May's name - it was emblazoned across the battle bus she toured the North-East in - from the Conservative brand appears to be working with some voters, who might feel a little queasy at the prospect of putting their cross next to a Tory candidate.

Some told me they had flirted with a Conservative vote, only to think better of it - Mrs May's support for a free vote on fox hunting, not an issue that has exactly dominated the airwaves, was mentioned by several people as a reason for not switching to the Tories.

And there will always be some who will never forget, or forgive. Like the Darlington woman who greeted Theresa May's name with a horrified cry of "she's another Maggie Thatcher!".

But on the basis of this highly unscientific sample, Thatcher is no longer the bogey figure she was and Labour can no longer rely on the loyalty of its traditional support base.