UK election: ‘It’s a means to an end – I want Brexit done’
Voters in West Yorkshire ditching life-long allegiances in topsy-turvy campaign
There is a Porsche parked on a street in Pudsey outside the house that the local Labour Party shares with the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers’ Union.
The sports car is not the only discovery that jars on a day out taking the political temperature in this ultra-marginal West Yorkshire constituency ahead of the UK general election next Thursday.
Conservative leader Boris Johnson has driven life-long Tories to abandon the party and vote for a Labour candidate here from the far-left flank of Corbyn’s party, in the hope of derailing Brexit.
This is what Britain’s topsy-turvy Brexit politics and this snap election has done to people.
As Pudsey votes, so does the country – well, at least in modern times. The constituency has backed the party that has won in every general election since Margaret Thatcher was elected prime minister in 1979.
This constituency is a light-blue, small ‘c’ conservative brick in the red wall around Leave-voting constituencies that runs from Wales through the West Midlands to the north of England. These are the Labour defences that Johnson is seeking to breach with his “Get Brexit Done” assault from the south.
Labour sees the Conservative seat in Pudsey, a dormitory town a 15-minute drive west of Leeds, as a key target. It’s a marginal constituency in terms of both elections and Brexit – it voted 51 per cent Remain in 2016.
The party’s election literature points out to voters that the (anti-Brexit) Liberal Democrats secured just 3.3 per cent of the vote in 2017, stressing that Labour is the only way to unseat the Tories here.
Labour’s radical socialist manifesto and the Conservative promise to deliver Brexit, along with polarising figures like Corbyn and Johnson, have forced people to step over political lines previously never crossed.
“I have never voted Conservative in all my life. I am Scottish working class. It is against my principles but this time I will be voting Conservative,” says retiree George Pollock, originally from the shipbuilding Clydebank area near Glasgow, walking through Pudsey Park with his wife Christine.
“It’s a means to an end – I want Brexit done. It’s the only chance of getting it done,” says Pollock who lives in Pudsey now, but votes in nearby Elmet and Rothwell.
Jason Aldiss, a former chairman of the Pudsey Conservative Association, has experienced an equally dramatic conversion. He resigned from the party in July when Johnson was “selected” prime minister and “will do everything humanly possible to prevent the Conservatives getting a majority,” he says.
The ardent Remainer says he never thought in a million years he would be hoping for the loss of at least 50 Conservative seats and a hung parliament in a bid to “kill Brexit”. He calls Brexit “a total and utter disaster” and a “vanity project” for a “neo-fascist sect” that took over his party.
“It is not the party that I joined 25 years ago. I didn’t leave it; it left me,” he says.
Standing in the winter sun in Pudsey Park, the businessman, who employs 800 people, urges other Remainers in the constituency to back Labour candidate Jane Aitchison, a former Socialist Party member who once called Tories “pig f**kers” and “lower than vermin”.
“Isn’t it an extraordinary thing that Boris has forced us into a position whereby I am prepared to vote for someone that has such extreme views,” he says.
Aldiss even counts the man Aitchison is trying to unseat in Pudsey, Conservative MP Stuart Andrew, a “personal friend” and an “excellent candidate”, but Johnson and Brexit has changed everything for him.
“It hurts me immensely to even think that I would be saying this,” he says.
Andrew clung on to the seat he won in 2010 by just 331 votes, making the constituency the sixth most marginal seat in the country.
For Labour, the road to Downing Street runs through Pudsey.
“This is a seat that we need to win to form a Labour government,” Hilary Benn, the Labour MP from neighboring Leeds Central, tells The Irish Times before heading out with a team of Aitchison’s canvassers.
Andrew, who voted Leave and for Johnson as Conservative leader, believes one issue will trump local concerns about Tory austerity and budget cuts to education that bother many in Pudsey. Most people are “fed up of the Brexit debate going on and on and on” and want a resolution that will keep Pudsey Conservative, he says.
“This has always been a marginal seat ever since I took it from Labour in 2010 so I know there is been a bit of a battle here and people have conflicting views about why they might vote for a party,” he says.
Perhaps in a nod to how divisive Brexit is in this split constituency, Aitchison makes no reference to her position on the UK’s exit from the EU in her campaign leaflets or whether she would vote Remain again in a second vote.
“I suspect that, having had three and a half years, the deal we get would not be better than remaining so I suspect I would want to remain again and campaign to remain, but I would want to see the deal,” she says when asked about this by The Irish Times outside her constituency office.
Her position will turn off traditional Labour voters who want Brexit done. Other long-term Labour supporters prefer the devil they know in Johnson than the untested Corbyn making big promises.
Strolling through Pudsey Park, Harold Hutchinson, a retired engineer, says his friends would be “gobsmacked” to hear he has gone from being a long-time Labour voter who voted to Remain in the Brexit referendum to someone who plans to vote Conservative next week and now wants out of the EU.
“Corbyn just doesn’t tick the box for me at all. I just don’t trust the bloke. I think when push comes to shove with Corbyn we would be let down,” he says.
Although Johnson’s approach is “a bit gung ho and all that”, he adds, “we know what he can do. That’s what I like about Boris.”
Simon Carswell and video journalist Enda O’Dowd will be reporting from battleground constituencies in the run-up to next Thursday’s election.