Election Notebook

Painting the red rose county blue

If Lancashire Leavers can ever be persuaded to vote Conservative, it needs to be now

If the Conservatives are to breach the Red Wall, in the North West they must first secure their own stockades. Labour is the incumbent in half of Lancashire’s sixteen constituencies. Six of the eight have Labour majorities exceeding 6,000 votes. By contrast, half of the Conservatives’ eight Lancashire seats are highly marginal, with majorities below 3,500 votes. If they lose these seats, then it will be a sign that Boris Johnson’s gamble has failed.

Yet as the campaign enters its last days, it is not the Conservatives who look the more vulnerable.

No election in the last thirty years has offered better prospects for the red rose of Lancashire to sprout blue petals. The “Get Brexit Done” mantra has appeal here: Lancashire’s 14 districts all voted Leave in the 2016 referendum. Some, like Lancaster and Preston, did so by margins not dissimilar to the national average, but in six districts the Leave vote exceeded 60 per cent. 

Conservative candidate Nigel Evans and Coronation Street’s Bill Roach meet a constituent in Clitheroe

Leave secured 67.5 per cent of the vote in Blackpool. If this is ever going to be translated into Conservative gains, then it needs to be now.

Indeed, with its independent-minded landladies and genteel hinterland, England’s most quintessential working class seaside town enjoyed a remarkably long assignation with Conservative gentlemen. Excepting a couple of trivial, fleeting Peelite/Liberal flings, Blackpool was represented by a Tory MP continuously since 1832. The tradition only ended in 1997, when it succumbed to Tony Blair’s easy charms.

Paul Maynard won back Blackpool North and Clevelays in 2010 and has reasonable grounds for confidence in defending the Conservatives’ slender 2,023 vote majority there on Thursday. This leaves Blackpool South as the Tories’ top Lancashire target. Defending a 2,523 majority, Labour’s Gordon Marsden has every reason to be worried.  

Besides Brexit and a concerted effort by the Conservative machine including visits by Cabinet ministers, two other forces are eroding the incumbent’s defences. 

Tellingly the Labour candidate has made no mention of Corbyn in his campaign literature

The first is the petty spats of local politics. Marsden can expect a light splintering of support to an independent candidate. This is Gary Coleman, Blackpool’s former mayor, who resigned from the Labour Party last year over an inter-generational feud within the ruling Labour Group on the council. The Colemans – father, son, and sister-in-law – had been a long-established feature of town hall life in Blackpool and while their challenge may not deprive Marsden of many votes, the Shadow Higher and Further Education Minister does not have the luxury of many of these to lose.

The second reason why Marsden may soon be spending more time in his other seaside home (Brighton) is that he was one of the 36 MPs that nominated Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour leadership.

Personal animosity towards Corbyn is the common factor identified by both main parties’ canvassers in Lancashire’s swing seats. The reaction is the same in town and country. 

Campaigning in Ribble Valley, where he has been Conservative MP since 1992, Nigel Evans finds that “things have changed” not just over the the span of his 27 years representing the constituency, but even since the 2015 campaign. This time, he finds “people coming across, shaking my hand and saying ‘we’ve got to stop Corbyn’” Tellingly, Giles Bridge, the Labour candidate for the constituency, has chosen to make no mention of his own Leader in any of his campaign literature. 

When canvassing floating voters, Evans poses the question that he knows will get the visceral response he seeks – “you don’t want Jeremy Corbyn do you?” 

The level of fear generated by the Labour leader is far greater this time than it was when he led his party to an improbable near victory two years’ ago.  It is not just in Ribble Valley that this is evident. Canvassers in other key Lancashire seats including Barrow-in-Furness, Pendle, and Hyndburn, as well as in parts of Greater Manchester, are daily encountering the same reaction at the mention of his name. 

This animosity is intriguing because most of the facts about Corbyn’s flirty behaviour in the presence of Irish and Palestinian terrorists were on display for all who cared to notice them back in 2017. 

This time, the allegations of antisemitism have gained greater traction and appear to be causing particular concern in the Greater Manchester constituency of Bury South where (although his name will remain on the ballot paper as an independent) the outgoing Labour MP, Ivan Lewis, has endorsed the Conservative candidate. Labour’s majority there is under 6,000 and is now considered “in play.”

In contrast to 2015 when Labour’s pledges were relatively moderate, the 2019 manifesto is unashamedly socialist, or as Nigel Evans puts it, “way more Venezuela.” The realisation that Corbyn really is leading a radical movement has ignited wider concerns about him and the company he has kept during his decades as a protest groupie.

The other difference is that in 2017 Labour fought on a platform of delivering Brexit (even if the Brexit that Labour had in mind was as soft as an eiderdown duvet). Now that Labour is committed to a second referendum with Remain as the alternative, Leave voters are far more worried that Labour is going to ignore them. 

The Lib Dems continue to target unwinnable Lancashire constituencies with wave upon wave of leaflet deliveries

Cancelling Brexit outright is even less appealing for Lancashire’s Leave-voting majority and the Lib Dems are duly trailing a distant third across every constituency in the county – even in Burnley which Gordon Birtwistle won for the Party in 2010. Birtwistle has been forlornly re-standing ever since, to ever smaller shares of the vote.

Certainly, there is no want of trying. The Lib Dems continue to target unwinnable Lancashire constituencies with wave upon wave of leaflet deliveries. For a party lacking the funds of its two larger rivals this seems a curious use of scarce resources which could be better spent in target seats. “I think this is Jo Swinson’s decision,” suggests Evans, “knowing that she won’t gain any seats up here but she’ll want to point to the vote going up nationwide. This is Jo Swinson spending money to ensure that she remains leader after the election.”

Touring the picturesque market town of Clitheroe, Nigel Evans is joined by veteran Coronation Street actor, Bill Roach. It’s a wet and, frankly, miserable day, but market-traders appear thrilled to see both men approaching for a chat. 

The unknown quantity is what effect December weather may have on turnout. For the Conservatives, the concern is that bad conditions could put off their core older, pension-age, voters from leaving the comfort of home. Ribble Valley has one of the largest Conservative associations in the country and can call upon a core group of activists ready to offer lifts and check-off known sympathisers. But the decline in party membership in many other constituencies makes for a lack of boots on the ground to undertake such tasks. In challenging conditions, who is left to get the vote out?

Indeed, a winter election is necessarily fought to different rules. Candidates are finding that householders will not answer their front doors after dark. This brings canvassing to an end by 5.30pm at the latest.  Nor are constituents much minded to venture out at night to a hustings meeting. In Ribble Valley there have only been two, both organised by local churches. Combined, turnout was about 200. This is 0.2 per cent of the constituency’s electorate.

Into the void has come targeting messaging through social media. This is not just the pushing out of carefully scripted and centralised Party videos, but also the creation of cheap and cheerful, short, localised posts. Ribble Valley Conservatives did not even have a social media budget at the last election. This time, it is a valued weapon in the armoury.

For anyone wanting to see how the Conservatives hope to win on Thursday, the evidence is in Lancashire.

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