Tories target Labour seats in Thatcher-hating Yorkshire
Campaign trail: May’s road to a bigger majority runs through Brexit-leaning constituencies
Finbarr Cronin, Wakefield’s Liberal Democrat candidate, says the Conservatives came into the election relying on the Brexit vote ‘but people have moved on on both sides of the divide’
There are people in Wakefield who have never voted for the British Conservative Party, former coal miners who spit Margaret Thatcher’s name when Antony Calvert knocks on their doors while campaigning.
That does not surprise the Tory candidate hoping to unseat Labour MP Mary Creagh in Thursday’s British general election; this West Yorkshire constituency was ground zero for the brutal miners’ strike of 1984-5.
Things have changed, however, and the reason, says Calvert, is Brexit.
“It is completely upside down,” says the local councillor and a property consultant, of British politics since last year’s referendum to leave the EU.
“That’s to do with Brexit; it has almost single-handedly detoxified the Conservative brand in Wakefield.”
The road to May’s hand-strengthening Westminster majority for the Brexit negotiations runs straight through Yorkshire. Across the UK there are 58 Labour seats where the Tories were fewer than 9,000 votes behind in the 2015 general election and where voters voted to leave the EU. A significant number of those seats are in the north of England.
Laying down a marker, the prime minister launched the party’s manifesto last month in nearby Halifax, a seat won by Labour with just 428 votes, the narrowest margin among those 58 seats. The constituency backed Leave with 60 per cent of the vote, making it even more susceptible to a Labour loss.
The vote for Brexit was even bigger in Wakefield, at 66 per cent. Creagh, the former shadow cabinet minister once seen as a potential successor to Ed Miliband as party leader, had 2,613 votes to spare in 2015 but this time around Ukip is not running a candidate in Wakefield and there are 8,000 Ukip votes up for grabs.
“If we are going to get the majority that gives Theresa May that negotiating hand in Europe, then we are going to have to win Wakefield,” said Calvert, about to tuck into a McDonald’s meal between canvassing at his campaign offices, a former Heart Foundation charity shop, in the heart of Wakefield.
The Tory says that most new supporters are “patriotic, socialist, left-wing voters who feel that the Labour Party today isn’t the Labour Party of 30 years ago” and they have come to the Conservatives via Ukip.
To call this a Labour stronghold is to understate the party’s base here. Wakefield has been a Labour seat since 1932 and the party has 53 of Wakefield District Council’s 63 seats.
This dominance has become a liability in tougher economic times, particularly among older voters who are frustrated that neighbouring Leeds has usurped Wakefield’s status as the region’s main shopping hub. Wages are lower here and there are fewer graduates, and the city relies heavily on public-sector employment, be it at the famous prison here, the West Yorkshire Police headquarters or the city’s “super-hospital”.
“If you look at it from 30 years ago, it is so run-down and nobody seems to be doing anything about it,” said Janet Yates (62), stopping to chat on a pedestrian street next to Wakefield Cathedral.
Yates is a relatively recent Conservative convert, only voting for the party in the last two elections. She voted out of the EU because she felt “Wakefield has got to have a better chance out than in.”
There is public anger too among the older generation that Creagh, Wakefield’s MP since 2005 and a high-profile Europhile, abstained on the article 50 vote at Westminster to trigger Brexit.
“The majority of the Wakefield public wanted Brexit,” said Yates’s husband Gary. “She should have gone with that article 50. She said, I can’t go against what my feelings are. But she is representing us, not herself.”
Around two corners from Calvert’s campaign office, the local Paddy Power bookmakers have Calvert at 3/10 to win and Creagh at 2/1, though the Labour MP’s odds have shortened in recent weeks. The Tories’ “dementia tax” – the plan to force the elderly who need social care to pay for it with their homes – and May’s policy U-turns and debate no-show have lifted Corbyn and Labour in recent weeks.
A poll on Tuesday by Survation for ITV television showed the Conservative lead over Labour narrowing to just one point, from six points a week ago, though polls in this campaign have been far from consistent.
Finbarr Cronin, Wakefield’s Liberal Democrat candidate, says the Conservatives have suffered because they have criticised Labour, asking where they are going to find the money to pay for new funding for schools, the NHS and expanded free childcare when they had not costed some of their own plans.
“They came into the election relying on the Brexit vote but people have moved on on both sides of the divide and are more worried about NHS and education funding, social care and social welfare,” said the 37-year-old candidate whose parents are from Cork and Co Galway.
Floating Ukip voters
Creagh appears unfazed at the large pool of floating Ukip voters in her constituency. She says Ukip candidate Lewis Thompson in the neighbouring Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford constituency is “so concerned” about the proposed Tory cuts to the winter fuel allowance and free school meals that “he has urged Ukip voters in Wakefield to support me”.
The Labour MP rejects the view that her position on Brexit puts her out of step with her constituents.
“The choice at the election for my constituency is between a strong local campaigning Labour MP who has stood up for them and for the city for the last 12 years and has fought for investment and good jobs in this city, whoever has been in government, Labour or Conservative, or a London-based lobbyist who would like to see a chaotic Brexit which will destroy jobs and investment in our city,” she said.
The London terror attack on Saturday, the third in as many months on the UK, has shifted debate to policing and national security in the last week of the campaign.
Creagh points to the cuts to the armed police and Yorkshire police under May’s watch.
“Under the Tories, the thin blue line is getting thinner. I voted against those cuts. A Tory yes-man would lob through potentially more cuts to our police. That is just wrong,” she said.
Calvert says that “no amount of police would have stopped what happened in Manchester unless you are going to have one police officer shadowing every one person in this country”.
The polarised nature of the vote in Wakefield can be seen even among families. Charlie Gray (20) was stunned to learn that her mother Susan Meeson (38) had switched from Labour to Conservative at the last election and planned to vote Conservative again this time.
“You dare vote. You dare!” she said, challenging her mother in a Yorkshire accent as thick as treacle, as they walked up Wakefield’s new Trinity Street Shopping area.
Charlie sees the political divide simply: the Conservatives are “for the rich” and Labour “for lower people”.
“He don’t wear a tie and I like that,” the student said of Corbyn.
“I like that but I don’t like what he says he is going to put in place,” Meeson tells her daughter.
“We are a bit divided us.”