The election rumblings that could spring a surprise in Heywood and Middleton
Date published: 03 December 2019
Elizabeth Gillies, from Bamford; Ray and Joyce Miller, from Heywood and Iris Potts, of Hind Hill Street, Heywood
On Middleton’s sprawling Langley estate, there are rumblings on the election doorstep.
Voters in this post-industrial seat – one that has always voted red – would not traditionally be much of a worry for Labour. But the Tories are hoping that the twin issues of Jeremy Corbyn and Brexit are changing the rules of the game.
“Who will I be voting for? Not Labour, unfortunately, because of who is in charge – the leader and his two side-kicks,” says Ian Kilgannon, owner of Donatello’s Pizza on Lakeland Court.
“He is anti-British, he comes across as anti-monarchy, he is anti-troops, he is anti-everything. He’s too much of a do-gooder.”
The 47-year-old also takes issue with Labour’s second referendum pledge.
“The public voted and voted to leave, whether you agree or not, it’s democracy. What’s democracy if they don’t stand by it,” he says.
“It says everything when you have older people than me who have voted Labour all their life not voting Labour at the moment.
“We are working class, we live on a council estate, Labour should be our party but it’s not. I think they have gone too far left with Corbyn.”
Ian’s views are echoed by a 28-year-old delivery driver working nearby, who has always previously voted Labour.
“Why? Because I don’t like Corbyn, that is the biggest reason of all,” he says. “If he can’t lead his own party, he can’t lead the country.”
This is exactly the sentiment Boris Johnson is looking to tap into here. The Rochdale seat of Heywood and Middleton is currently held by Labour’s Liz McInnes by a majority of around 7,500 – and is precisely the kind of territory the Prime Minister aims to win if he is to secure a majority.
Tory strategists are more than aware that back in 2014, Labour nearly lost this seat to UKIP in a by-election, a portentous precursor to the referendum result that played out less than two years later. Labour may have increased its majority since but that result five years ago pointed to unrest beneath the surface.
It is also no coincidence that Johnson launched his election bus just a stone’s throw from here two weeks ago. He will hope that a strongly pro-Brexit message, coupled with antipathy towards the Labour leader’s values, will be enough to swing things his way.
Nevertheless that is far from certain. There are issues at play in this election other than Brexit. And Labour’s concentration on investment and public services is still a key draw for some in its traditional heartland.
Sam Socha is leaning towards Labour. It is three key policies from the party – scrapping tuition fees, free broadband and a pledge to build 100,000 new council houses per year – that have caught his eye.
“I think Labour because, firstly, they want to scrap tuition fees and have more affordable broadband,” she says. “It’s more fair towards us ordinary people, there are more opportunities and they want to build new affordable housing for good reasons.”
And as for Jeremy Corbyn? “He is okay, for me the party itself if more important than the leader. I think I would vote Labour whether it was Corbyn or someone else.”
Lifelong Labour voter Iris Potts, 79, from Hind Hill Street, is also sold on the party’s public services message. Unlike some, she still views Corbyn’s Labour as representing the working class.
“I’m going to vote Labour for the National Health Service, I don’t believe Boris Johnson, I think he will sell us out, definitely. They don’t care about the working class; they are giving tax breaks to the rich.”
The NHS is the key concern for 32-year-old Kim Walesby, too.
An occupational therapist working in children’s mental health services, she intends to vote Labour – who have pledged to increase the health budget by 4.3pc – on December 12
“It’s the NHS that is the biggest concern, especially for someone who has worked in the NHS for a long time. Boris Johnson has been so quiet about selling it off bit by bit. I don’t have any faith he would not do that.”
More than one voter the Tories hope to woo raises the same point: trust. While Boris Johnson may have a strategy to win over people turned off by Corbyn, instead the character of the Tory Prime Minister is the focus of many.
So while Denise Keogh takes a dim view of Jeremy Corbyn ‘going back’ on his pledge to honour the 2016 referendum result, for example, she is equally unconvinced by Boris Johnson.
“He has tricked people as well,” says the 51-year-old. “He has said we were coming out, knowing full well it wasn’t going to happen, but making it looks like he wants it to happen.”
Four miles away, in Heywood, this is also preoccupying 86-year-old Ray Miller.
“What strikes me with Boris is he doesn’t stick to the truth,” he says. “He said we would find him dead in a ditch if we didn’t get out on October 31.
“Jeremy Corbyn? I’m happy with him but we could have somebody better, he doesn’t push himself enough and Boris is the other way.”
Mr Miller’s wife, Joyce, 77 – a Lib Dem voter – agrees that Boris is ‘a bumbler’.
“I just don’t trust Boris, I just don’t, he has said so many things.” she adds.
Labour will hope many of the undecided voters in this election end up taking a similar view. The party regionally had not seemed too worried about the seat until a YouGov poll this week showed it neck-and-neck, prompting a flurry of extra campaign activity.
Even so, activists say the reaction on the doorstep this time round has been ‘less negative’ than 2017 – when they detected a late change of mood, before Mrs McInnes was re-elected.
One campaign source says he still is confident Mrs McInnes will hold the seat, but adds that the Brexit Party’s decision to stand – and not only that, but to stand a former Labour councillor – could make things harder.
“It depends how many votes Colin Lambert takes,” he says. “There’s a lot of respect for him among people who are Labour voters.”
On the Tory side, however, activists report finding pockets of support in what they have previously considered the most Labour of Labour areas.
Mum-of-two Emma Richardson is in the bag for them. She has more faith in the Prime Minister to deliver Brexit – and says both she and her partner will be voting Tory at the election.
“We just want to see what it’s like, obviously they are getting the ball rolling and it would just be a shame to see it going backwards,” she says.
Despite its moniker, Heywood and Middleton is a constituency in three, not two parts – as it also includes the Rochdale suburbs of Bamford, Norden and Castleton.
Affluent Bamford, represented locally by three Tory councillors, is seen as a true blue area of the borough – as is neighbouring Norden.
“I’ll probably vote Conservative, it is Bamford, after all,” says one resident.
Opinion here is nonetheless varied – from those who welcome Labour’s nationalisation programme, to others attracted to the Tories’ pledge of more nurses.
Mum-of-three Norsheen Afzal says Labour’s plans to scrap tuition fees are a big draw for her. And she, too, has concerns about Boris Johnson’s character.
“That’s massive,” she says of Labour’s universities policy. “Me and my husband both have to work full time, we have to save. We are thinking ‘are we saving enough for the kids to go to university’? If university fees are abandoned, they could have something else.
“I quite like Jeremy Corbyn, he is down to earth, charismatic and genuinely cares about people – it’s not just about pleasing the upper classes.
“But I think Boris Johnson is another Trump in the making, I wouldn’t consider voting for him.”
79-year-old Elizabeth Gillies has come to a different conclusion. She has plumped for the Conservatives – but has doubts about either potential Prime Minister.
“I don’t like the Labour leader, it is frightening what he is going to do,” she says.
“You work hard for your money and he is going to take it all off you. I like Boris Johnson, he is a character. I don’t know about running the country though, but he might change.”
That Heywood and Middleton is now a potential battleground is proof in itself that politics in this country is changing.
The Tories would doubtless hail a victory here as proof of its claim to be the new party of the working class. But both parties have to hope their key offer to voters – Brexit from the Tories, better public services from Labour – will be enough to overcome doubts on the doorstep about their respective leaders.
For here, as elsewhere, this strange poll is at least as much about personality as it is about policy.
Nick Statham, Local Democracy Reporter
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