ELECTION 2019: Can Labour fend off Brexit challengers in the battle for Ashfield?
Ashfield has been a closely-watched constituency battle at this election as Labour seeks to defend a wavering majority in a seat that voted heavily for Brexit in 2016. Anahita Hossein-Pour takes the temperature at a rowdy hustings.
If you're looking for a seat that points to the challenge Labour is facing at this election, you could do worse than focus on Ashfield.
The Nottinghamshire constituency voted strongly to leave the European Union in 2016 in a 70-30% split, and the 2019 election has drawn in Brexit Party candidate Martin Daubney, with Ashfield Independent hopeful Jason Zadrozny and Conservative Lee Anderson also going after the Leave vote.
The race has been enlivened by Labour's former MP Gloria De Piero announcing she is stepping down from Parliament after nearly 10 years - making way for a host of newcomers to try and woo voters there.
And chief among them is Anderson - now standing for Boris Johnson's Tories - who used to work as De Piero’s office manager.
A shift from Labour here would represent a major storm in an East Midlands stronghold which has just once denied the party a seat in its 64-year history.
As the campaign rages on, the five parties vying to overturn a 441-majority for Jeremy Corbyn’s party go head-to-head at the local Hall Park Academy in its very own school auditorium version of Question Time, complete with cups of tea.
Daubney, running for the Brexit Party, arrives at the school debate flanked by two campaigners wearing bright blue Brexit Party hoodies, who set up to record the showdown.
Playing to the gallery, the West Midlands MEP jokingly poses with some Lib Dem branding - even earning a smile from his Lib Dem ultra-opposite.
It's a quick-fire round from the audience of sixth-formers, some of whom will be casting their ballots for the first time in December.
The candidates face a grilling on everything from hate speech to being “truthful”, to devolution of powers from Westminster.
On manifestos, Labour candidate Natalie Fleet admits she hasn't “quite managed to find the time yet” to read it, but that “it’s definitely worth it”, while Conservative Lee Anderson tries to assure the audience that his party’s promises are fully-costed, despite two top think tanks coming out on the same day to question the credibility of both parties’ plans.
There is also a stormy exchange as Fleet accuses Anderson, the former Labour staffer now running for the Tories, of “mansplaining” the gender pay gap when he starts saying he was a "victim of equal pay" in a previous job and debating the difference between women and men in football.
In a week where the Daily Mail’s Michael Crick exposes Anderson for apparently setting up a fake door-knock with a friend posing as a Tory supporter, questions over honesty in politics also give the Conservative candidate a tough time.
“I’m not going to pick on Lee because I think he’s had a bad enough week with issues, but you can Google that yourself,” Zadrozny, the independent candidate here, quips.
Daubney meanwhile seizes on the sheer volume of Zadrozny's own campaign literature - "half of Sherwood Forest" - and accuses the independent of using data that’s ten years old.
Zadroznys hits back by accusing the Nigel Farage candidate of being parachuted in from Brussels and “pretending” to live in the area.
“I’ve scratched a nerve haven’t I!” Daubney laughs.
“People have asked about honesty and you’ve started lying, you’re crackers," Zadronzy shoots back.
The debate takes place just after the much-anticipated MRP poll from YouGov, which correctly predicted 2017’s hung parliament.
In a boost for the Tories, it suggests Anderson is on course for a win. But even the polling is in dispute at the hustings, as rival candidates argue that the firm hasn't factored in local circumstances.
Fleet, the Labour candidate, says: “We have had a Labour MP here as long as I’ve been born.
"But we haven’t had a Labour government, what we’ve had is a Tory government that has seen this area struggle in a lot of different ways."
She adds: “That YouGov [poll] was a snapshot of were they predict we’re at right now. We’ve got two weeks to change it so that’s why we’ve really ramped it up.
"We’ve got lots of volunteers coming and we are out campaigning every minute of every day to make sure that we can influence the next election.”
This is one seat where Labour's 'final say' policy could prove a hard sell to the Brexiteer electorate, shown up by Fleet's refusal to call it a second referendum but instead a "confirmatory ballot", prompting groans from her rivals.
There's a mixed response from the the sixth-formers as the stormy debate wraps up.
First-time voter Joseph Stapleford tells PolHome that getting Brexit done and tackling climate change are his two main priorities as he heads to the ballot box.
“I quite liked Martin of the Brexit Party," he says. "He made us laugh a few times and I quite liked Jason [Zadrozny] - he’s quite a nice guy, and I agree with both their policies.
He added: “I feel like I can trust in the Conservatives and that’s probably who I will end up voting for just because of the constituency I’m in, but on the whole I feel the Brexit Party I’m more aligned with.”
But Anderson didn’t leave 18-year-old Sarah Leonard too impressed.
“I don’t think Lee came across very well to be completely honest, the football remark...he just seemed to be digging himself a hole,” she explained.
“But I thought the Labour representative and the independent stood out to me more than anybody else.
“The Brexit representative was interesting but I’m not sure it was all for the right reasons.”
‘THE ZADROZNY EFFECT'
From the outset, several of the candidates have been flaunting their local credentials of "Ashfield born and bred", but Zadrozny, an independent, is arguing he is the only Leave candidate able to beat Labour in the seat.
The Ashfield District Council leader saw success at the local elections in May, with his party, the Ashfield Independents, sweeping 30 out of 35 seats in the authority, and booting Labour out of power.
Among the chatter ahead of the debate was much talk of "the Zadrozny effect" in Ashfield - but the former community centre manager laughs off the tag over a hot chocolate with PoliticsHome after the hustings dies down.
“We did a very unusual thing and I guess what people credit me for is, and my skill really has been as a people’s catalyst,” he says in the Morrison's cafe over the road.
“I’ve brought very diverse groups of people together, millionaire businessmen to single mums from a council estate and brought them together working for a real good common purpose and that’s how we defied the odds in May this year.
“We didn't just win a huge amount of seats. We won them by massive margins, some of our councillors were getting 90 per cent of the vote, North Korean-style majorities.”
Building on a general mood of distaste for party politics, Zadrozny thinks this bid is the Ashfield Independents’ big chance to gain a foothold in Westminster - which could make this a pretty unique contest on 12 December.
“I think this is probably the best time for this area to do it, because the party is bigger than me, there’s a lot of people behind me here," he says. "This is not a one-man band."
Hitting the campaign trail, the party has reached its millionth piece of paper (“it’s all recyclable,” he assures) and spoken to 60,000 people across the constituency, making Zadrozny quietly confident about his odds.
And a guess on numbers? “I think here that I’ll end up within 150 votes of Labour, one side or the other, and I honestly couldn’t tell you whether it'll be the right side or the wrong one."
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