On the campaign trail with Jon Ashworth and Jenny Chapman
Jon Ashworth is under no illusions about the scale of the challenge facing Labour at this election – but believes his party is starting to get a hearing on the doorstep. Kevin Schofield joins him and Jenny Chapman on the campaign trail
It’s just after 3pm on a sunny May afternoon in Darlington, and Pete Plant is once again retracing the steps he first took more than 50 years ago.
The 67-year-old has been canvassing for the Labour party since the 1964 general election, and when Theresa May surprised everyone by announcing she wanted to go to the country on 8 June, he knew he would be called into action once again.
Labour’s Jenny Chapman has been the local MP since 2010, and holds the seat with a majority of just over 3,000 from the Conservatives. With the national polls looking grim for her party, she is very much in the ‘at risk’ category.
But this election is different from all the others. Plant says he has never experienced such ill-feeling towards a Labour leader as he is now.
“I spoke to one man who said ‘I’ve only ever voted Labour, but I can’t for the first time in my life because I can’t vote for that man Corbyn’,” Plant says as he goes out to knock on more doors.
“And he wasn’t the first one. I’ve had a few ex-soldiers saying they won’t vote for him because he wouldn’t push the button.
“Every day I’m getting older voters who have campaigned for Labour all their lives and they say they’re not voting for Jeremy Corbyn. But I say to them, you’re voting for Jenny Chapman, not Jeremy Corbyn. It’s just so sad.”
Plant says that local Momentum members blame the media for its portrayal of the Labour leader, which they say has turned voters against him. They are also sceptical about the usefulness of traditional campaigning methods.
“They’re not coming out canvassing because apparently it’s a waste of time,” says Plant. “I say you need to talk to the voters and listen to what they say. And if at first they say they won’t vote Labour, you try to persuade them.”
Asked if he thinks Chapman can retain her seat, Plant says: “I think we’ll do very well to hold on. I did a lot of work when Alan Milburn took this seat off Michael Fallon [in 1992], and there’s a different mood here now. This should be more like 97, which was absolutely phenomenal. But they just don’t trust Jeremy Corbyn.”
Conservative plans to close the A&E department at Darlington Memorial Hospital are a major cause for concern locally, and Labour has pledged to revisit that decision and others across the country.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth met up with Labour activists outside the hospital to set out his opposition to the proposals, before joining them on the doorstep.
The response they got wasn’t as great as MPs’ tweets would have you believe, but nor was it disastrous from a Labour point of view.
Given the time of day, it was perhaps unsurprising that many houses were empty, but there was a Labour-supporting majority among those who did answer. Only one elderly woman mentioned the C word.
“I’ve always voted Labour, but I don’t like Jeremy Corbyn,” she explained. “I think voting should be compulsory and I always vote, but it’s very difficult.”
A younger voter told Ashworth that he had no interest in politics, had only voted once in his life and was in no rush to repeat the experience. Given that part of the Corbyn appeal was that he would attract non-voters, that was another worrying straw in the wind for his party.
Overall, though, both Ashworth and Chapman were reasonably encouraged by how it had gone – but neither was under any illusion about the scale of the task Labour faces on 8 June.
Chapman says: “People are questioning us in a way that they haven’t for a number of years, but I’ve never had an election in Darlington where you could knock on doors and they’ll go ‘I’ve been Labour all my life’, it’s just not that kind of town. You have to stand there and take whatever they throw at you for 10/15 minutes at a lot of doors. It’s not a typical north-east seat in that way.
“So this is not that different from a normal general election. I’d like to think that when you’ve been the MP for seven years, somebody has noticed you’ve done something for them in that time, without overstating the effect of a personal vote.
“But if you do work hard and you do make an effort to communicate with people and be available, then you will inevitably get some support that way.
“But there are a lot of people in Darlington who are very concerned about cuts to schools, the future of the hospital, about what’s happened to local government, about the north-east as a region, and I think they’re looking at what the Tories are saying about those things – which is virtually nothing – and realising that actually this election is about an awful lot more than Brexit.”
Speaking as he prepared to head back to his own Leicester South constituency, Ashworth says: “I thought there was a reasonable reception there for the Labour party. I might even tweet #greatlabourdoorstep after that. I think on any objective analysis that was good.
“It’s probably a reflection of the fact that we’ve got such an excellent MP here in Jenny, but we know that we have got a fight on our hands in this election and there’s a long way to go.
“We’re not going to be taking seats like this one for granted. My sense is that the Conservative campaign is getting very arrogant, and they’re just assuming that they’re coasting to victory. But I don’t think people want to give them a blank cheque, so it’ll be closer in places like this than some of the pundits are predicting.”
Without taking his near-18,000 vote majority for granted – no Labour MPs can do that in this election – Ashworth has resolved to go to as many other seats as he can to drum up support for the party.
Darlington was his 14th of the election so far, with many more lined up on his itinerary. With so many hospital departments facing closure across the country, his pledge to review those decisions is a sure-fire vote-winner.
“I get invited to help motivate the Labour support,” he says. “If you’re going to do doorknocking and say you’ve got a member of the shadow cabinet coming, it hopefully encourages more people to come out.”
He adds: “We can’t deny the opinion polls, but I do think from speaking to people on the doorstep that voters are concerned about their local NHS, they are concerned about their local schools and they are concerned about the cost of living.
“The way that the Tories are trying to present this as being about one issue only – Brexit – and not offering people anything on these other issues, risks taking people for granted.”
He concedes that Brexit is still a concern for many voters, specifically what it will mean for the economy.
“People generally accept that we have to get on with it now, but it doesn’t mean a blank cheque for the Tories,” he says. “That’s where Labour has to make the argument that we are leaving the EU, but in so doing we have to secure jobs, goods services, rights at work and environmental protections.”
The NHS should be safe ground for Labour, but a recent poll suggested Theresa May was more trusted with its future than Jeremy Corbyn. Ashworth has got just over three weeks to turn that around.
He says: “I’m going to be getting round the country as much as I can and meeting as many Labour candidates as I can to lend them my support.
“But also we’ve got big arguments that we want to make about the future of the NHS. We want to give our staff a fair pay rise and we want to invest in safe staffing levels because patient safety is a priority of mine.
“We’ll announce further plans to invest in the NHS itself. The one thing I’ve said in this campaign which is a big personal ambition is a specific aim to have the healthiest children in the world. We are too far down the league tables in comparison to other wealthy nations and I don’t think that’s good enough.”
But before that can be done, Ashworth has to help revive the Labour party in time for polling day. That’s a challenge that even the most talented surgeon would struggle with.