- The Conservatives believe they are in course for a historic victory thanks to growing support in the North West of England.
- Business Insider spoke to candidates and voters in the key election battleground of Cumbria.
- Polls suggest they are both set to elect Conservative MPs at the December 12 election.
- The Labour Party is fighting to keep hold of Workington and Barrow & Furness.
- Brexit, the nuclear industry, and declining economies dominate doorstep conversation.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Boris Johnson’s Conservatives are increasingly confident that they are on course for a victory in next week’s general election thanks to growing discontent in former Labour-voting areas.
Business Insider visited the electoral battleground of Cumbria where the Conservatives have set their sights on two constituencies 50 miles apart in this rural county in the northwest of England: Workington and Barrow & Furness.
The Conservatives have never held both of these seats simultaneously. Indeed the Tory party has controlled Workington for just three of its 100 year history with the Labour Party holding the seat for the other 97.
However, polling suggests Cumbrians will make history when they go to the polls on Thursday.
Extensive polling by YouGov unveiled last week, said that these two Brexit-voting towns on the Cumbrian coast were set to elect Conservative MPs. In Workington, which is held by Shadow Environment Secretary Sue Hayman, the Conservatives were one percentage point ahead. In Barrow & Furness, the Conservative lead over Labour was 15%.
Simon Fell, the Conservative candidate in Barrow & Furness, told Business Insider that the ongoing Brexit stalemate had shifted voters away from Labour.
“It’s a strongly-Leave seat and people are very worried that Parliament has taken this long to get to not even a decision,” he said.
“What they’re seeing with Labour is a party which said they’d respect the result of the referendum but are not doing that.”
Conservative activists in Barrow & Furness believe two key factors are working in their favour.
Firstly, previous Liberal Democrat voters are not flocking to Labour like they did in 2017. And secondly, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party is not attracting enough support to undermine Fell’s campaign, or indeed much support at all.
“All we’ve got is canvassing and to be honest with you we are getting very little Brexit Party support. I can probably count on two hands the number of Brexit Party supporters we have found,” Fell told Business Insider.
The campaigns of Fell and Workington’s Conservative candidate, Mark Jenkinson, have been boosted by high-profile visits from senior ministers in Johnson’s government, including Chancellor Sajid Javid and Education Secretary Gavin Williamson. Prime Minister Johnson is expected to visit the region before polling day next week.
Britain’s neglected towns are key election battlegrounds
The Conservatives believe that the key to an election victory lies in winning over voters dubbed “The Workington Man.” According to conservative think tank Onward, these are working-class Leave-voters in rugby league-watching towns like Workington and Barrow. Other towns it listed include Wigan and Warrington in nearby counties Lancashire and Cheshire.
Sue Hayman, who is fighting to keep Workington in Labour’s hands, told Business Insider that she had received “quite a lot of complaints from people saying they felt belittled and patronised” by the label.
“There was a feeling of who is this bloke from down south looking down his nose at Northerners and thinking he can chuck us into one basket,” Hayman said.
Evidence suggests seats like Workington and Barrow & Furness are slowly slipping through Labour’s grasp. The Centre For Towns think tank last month published polling suggesting the Conservatives led Labour in every category of town it had devised. Their lead was 22% in coastal towns, where Workington and Barrow-in-Furness fall, up 4% on 2017.
Towns, with ageing and less diverse populations, are generally more socially conservative than metropolitan areas. As a result Labour’s support has dropped in many parts of North England and the Midlands.
The think tank’s Professor Will Jennings said that Barrow and Workington, like other towns across the country, share a negative “economic trajectory” dating back decades, defined by a loss of jobs, capital, and industry.
“These are places that have sustained a loss of their economic heartbeat. And that’s over a very long period dating back certainly back to Thatcher, and potentially before,” Jennings told Business Insider.
Workington and Barrow are at opposite ends of the beautiful but remote Cumbrian coast. Underserved by shoddy public transport and local infrastructure, both experience “relative geographical isolation” which leaves inhabitants feeling “disconnected from wider parts of the country,” Jennings said.
Both towns depend on the nuclear industry. This is particularly tricky for Labour in Barrow, where Conservative activists claim Labour leader Corbyn’s lifelong opposition to nuclear weapons is a threat to the town’s largest employer, BAE Systems, which employs thousands to develop the Trident nuclear defence system. Labour activists point out that the party’s manifesto commits to renewing the Trident nuclear weapons system.
Labour is hopeful of clinging on
Hayman was quietly confident that Labour’s vote would hold up, telling Business Insider “it feels ok on the doorstep.”
Chris Altree, Labour’s candidate in Barrow & Furness, agreed with Hayman. He told Business Insider: “I don’t think Labour’s vote is necessarily drifting in a way that the Conservatives like to pretend it is.”
He said: “The thing I’m telling people is your vote really counts in this constituency. Some people are put off voting Labour by the last MP we had [John Woodcock.] He didn’t endear himself to a lot of people.
“So it’s a change and a fresh start.”
Woodcock quit the Labour Party in 2018 in protest against Corbyn’s leadership. He has urged voters in Barrow to support the Conservatives, describing Corbyn as a threat to national security.
Altree works on the local railways having previously served in Afghanistan. He said both professions exposed him to the effects of austerity. Particularly the army, which he said was “decimated” by Conservative government cuts.
“I hate this myth that the Conservatives are strong on defence and that they’ll look after your boys. They really don’t.”
He said a Conservative MP would be an “absolute disaster” for Barrow.
“I just look at how much they [Conservatives] have cut from the councils over the last ten years. Barrow just needs to look at when it last had a Conservative MP — we lost ten thousand or so jobs from the shipyard.”
Hayman said she was desperate for Labour to win the election and implement its manifesto, as its plans to build a green economy includes a new recycling steel plant in Workington, which she said would “affect this area hugely.”
Both Hayman and Altree acknowledged that they had fight on their hands.
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The Labour Party knows it must narrow the polling gap between itself and the Conservatives in the days ahead if it is to keep hold of even just one of these seats.
However, Fell was optimistic that he will become Barrow’s first Conservative MP in nearly 30 years on December 12. It is his third attempt to win the seat after narrowly losing out two years ago.
He compared Barrow with nearby Copeland, the Cumbrian constituency that borders Workington, which in a 2017 by-election elected its first Conservative MP in well over 20 years.
“There is clearly a direction of travel here and it is people wanting a change from the Labour establishment who have sat here for a long time,” he said.
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