The north-east elected a third of the Cabinet to their seats, but gets, locals say, "bugger all" in
Drinkers in Trimdon Colliery and Deaf Hill Working Men's Club haven't enjoyed a visit from their most prominent member for more than three years. "Tony Blair? When did we last see him? Before the election?" muses a stalwart. "Aye, that's right. Before he was Prime Minister. He's not exactly what you'd call a regular."
When Blair does find time to pop in for a swift half, he will not like what he hears. The north-east, which has more Cabinet members than any other area of the country - not only Blair but Peter Mandelson (Hartlepool), Alan Milburn (Darlington), Mo Mowlam (Redcar), Nick Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne East & Wallsend), Stephen Byers (Tyneside North) - is in open revolt. The loss of Hartlepool in the local government elections is just one sign of a deep malaise. Turnouts of around 20 per cent throughout the north-east showed the extent to which Blair's message fails to impress the flock in the region.
The revolt in Labour's heartlands started in Scotland and Wales. But the Celtic countries had a history of rebellion; the north-east was famed for its loyalty to mainstream Labour. Membership of the Prime Minister's local party is said to be down by around 500 since the election, after a cut-price £1-a-go membership drive proved an expensive flop. Virtually every other constituency in the region is reporting significant falls. MPs complain that some wards have ceased to operate at all.
A few northern Labour MPs will speak out publicly, but most prefer to keep their concerns to themselves. Party officials who interview prospective MPs have been surprised that the hostility has spread to them.
A party official said: "In London, if you asked whether the government had let down Labour supporters, they were acute enough to give a long list of reforms and said we might have a problem communicating with supporters. In the north-east, they just said, 'Yes, you're right' and trotted out a long list of grievances."
Obsessed by Worcester Woman and Mondeo Man in his pursuit of Middle England, Blair took Durham Dave and Tyneside Theresa for granted. Loyal, reliable, dependable, like their parents and their grandparents, they always voted Labour. Blair and new Labour believed they had nowhere else to go.
But they could, and did, stay in their armchairs: in last year's European elections, one ward in central Sunderland recorded a record low turnout of 1.5 per cent.
The quip that Labour votes were not so much counted as weighed in the north-east was not that far from the truth. An impressive 28 of the 30 seats (the exceptions being Liberal Democrat Berwick-upon-Tweed and Tory Hexham) are in the hands of the People's Party. The MPs include not just the Cabinet members, but several other ministers, including Chris Mullin (Sunderland South), Hilary Armstrong (Durham North West), Joyce Quin (Gateshead East) and David Clelland (Tyne Bridge). And that is not to mention Giles Radice (Durham North), who chairs the Treasury Select Committee, and Middlesbrough's Stuart Bell, who is a Church Estates Commissioner.
What does the north-east get out of supplying nearly a third of the Cabinet? "A big resounding 'bugger all' is what most people tell you," said one of the disaffected backbenchers. "Nick Brown has kept his finger on the pulse in Newcastle, Stevie [Byers] has done pretty well, but the others are not considered to have done anything in particular for the north-east."
Blair's apparent indifference was underlined by his attempt to deny the north-south divide, a move that went down badly in a region shown to have more in common economically with Hungary and Chile than with south-east England. As the north-east sees it, present interest-rate levels are designed for the south; because they push up sterling and make it more difficult to export, they hit hard in an area still reliant on manufacturing. Even Nissan, the jewel in the crown of the industrial north-east, has started a cost-cutting drive.
Davey Hall, the AEEU engineering union's north-east secretary, believes that the region is being unfairly punished. "It's not hard to work out what will happen if Nissan tells its suppliers to cut their costs by a third in three years," he says. "Property prices aren't booming here like they are in the south. There seems to be more interest in London house prices than manufacturing jobs in the north. We've got to get the pound down."
North Tyneside's Siemens factory and the Fujitsu plant in Blair's constituency have shut since he moved into No 10; both companies blame a glut of microchips on world markets. Older industries have fared little better. Three Peterlee clothing factories shut in March, with the loss of 850 jobs, when Marks and Spencer ended a contract. Some workers found jobs with another supplier 25 minutes south; but before they could start, it, too, lost a contract.
"Every single oil-related rig yard on the Tyne, Tees and Wear has dried up," says Hall. "Something like 5,000 jobs have gone in three years. We are losing skilled workers at an alarming rate."
The north-east has the lowest average incomes, worst-educated workforce and highest rates of mortality in Britain. It also has the highest unemployment: a rate of 8.5 per cent against a national average of 5.8 per cent. Unemployment is virtually a way of life for men aged over 50. Ministers boast that, nationally, nearly 900,000 more people have found work since the election; in the north-east, the net growth is just 20,000 jobs. As a recent report from the Commons Select Committee on Employment (chaired by Derek Foster, whose Bishop Auckland seat borders Blair's Sedgefield) put it: "The benefits of a strong economy have not been shared equally across the country."
"We are simply back where we were two years ago," says Bill Midgley, the president of the North East Chamber of Commerce. Labour has delivered some reforms, such as the minimum wage, which, low as it is, does benefit the region. But regional grievances have led some Labour MPs to demand a devolved north-east assembly. As a Fabian Society report, The English Question, puts it: "The territories that do well out of redistribution of public spending include Northern Ireland and, most of all, Scotland. The conspicuous losers are northern England, the East Midlands, East Anglia and the south-west."
MPs reckon that the north-east would be £1bn better off if it were funded on the same basis as Scotland. But Blair, badly bruised by battles in post- devolution Scotland and Wales, has shown little enthusiasm for devolution in his own backyard. Along with the promised referendum on proportional representation, it is one of the two manifesto commitments that Downing Street does not even try to pretend have been met.
Publicly, Downing Street does not accept that there is any divergence between the interests of the Labour heartlands and those of Middle England. Privately, Millbank disagrees, and it has quietly restored a north-east party headquarters, after a seven-year absence, to bolster Labour morale.
Blair's selection as Sedgefield's candidate before the 1983 election, the tale of the bright barrister making his way north to impress sceptical activists with the power of his arguments and the force of his personality, is the stuff of new Labour legend. Blair worked hard to spin the image of a man going "home" whenever he returned to the area, even claiming improbably in an interview before May 1997 that his favourite drink was a pint of foaming Federation Ale, and that fish and chips (preferably eaten out of paper, no doubt) was his favourite food.
But the picture was spoiled for one believer when the Labour leader, cajoling him into running for a northern seat, told him he would not have to visit his constituency too often. "I told him I liked living in London, and Tony said: 'Don't worry. I only have to go up once a month. You can do the same.'"
In truth, Blair was always more of an Islington man, at home in the swish restaurants and salons of London N1 rather than the pubs and front rooms of County Durham. Few drinkers, if any, in Trimdon Colliery and Deaf Hill Working Men's Club hold that against him. What they, and many more like them in the north-east, do resent is being taken for granted.
Kevin Maguire is on the staff of the Guardian