Luke Pollard: “Labour is on the cusp of winning in places we have never won before”
Luke Pollard is riding the wave of the Labour surge. Plymouth’s newest MP tells Daniel Bond why he believes the election could signal the start of a new era for his party in the south-west
Luke Pollard recalls the exact moment he knew the wheels had come off the Conservatives’ election campaign.
On a visit to a Plymouth fish market in the Tory-held seat of Sutton and Devonport, with just weeks until polling day, Theresa May agreed to a quick interview with a local journalist. The result was a car-crash which the paper later described as “three minutes of nothing”.
“Before 8.30am today, I had never interviewed a prime minister,” the reporter wrote. “Heading back to the office to transcribe my encounter with Theresa May, I couldn’t be certain that had changed.”
It was a moment that Pollard says “summed up the paucity and the strategic weakness of her entire campaign”.
“The Tories’ campaign was about Theresa May’s personality, but they hadn’t checked if she had one,” he says as he sits down with The House magazine to dissect his victory a week on. “She couldn’t answer any questions. On transport – a vital issue for the south-west – she couldn’t say anything. On defence – a vital issue for the south-west – she couldn’t say anything. That moment just gave added impetus to our campaign.”
Pollard went on to win the seat from the Tories with over 50% of the vote – picking up 10,000 more votes than he won when he stood unsuccessfully in 2015.
It was a remarkable turnaround that the new MP puts down to three key factors: an innovative local campaign based around social media content and direct advertising on Google and YouTube; a transformative manifesto that resembled an “incredible hits tape, with the best bits from the left, the middle and the right of the party”; and Jeremy Corbyn’s ability to energise and inspire young people and first-time voters.
Plymouth is home to some 45,000 students, the majority of whom live in Pollard’s seat in the south of the city. Their vote proved so crucial that one local Conservative councillor even suggested university students should be stripped of the right to vote there, after he witnessed “an unprecedented volume of young people flooding the polling booths”.
It’s a response Pollard says sums up just how out of touch the Conservatives now are with young voters.
“Young people’s views have been ignored in politics for far too long,” he says. “They haven’t voted for a long, long time because politicians haven’t taken the time to listen and to present an argument that they wanted to vote for; Jeremy Corbyn has, and they did.
“It wasn’t just that Labour was proposing scraping tuition fees, it was also proposing help to get on the housing ladder, support for FE colleges, reversing school cuts, help for young people’s mental health. It was the fact that, right throughout our manifesto, the needs and priorities of young people were not just understood, they were there, in black and white, for everyone to see.”
He says the task for Labour now, facing an unstable government and the possibility of a second election before too long, is to maintain that energy and that momentum, and to encourage as many young people as possible to not only vote, but to join the party and get involved.
“Politics won’t be the same again – there is a new direction that’s been charted,” he says.
“I saw so many young people, who had never been involved in politics, volunteering in the campaign and by the end of it they were bolder and more confident in who they are, more determined that they can do something and make a difference. It makes me genuinely really proud. And we’re just at the start – that’s what’s really exciting, we’re not at the crest of the wave yet. This is just the start. There is more to come.
“We could have an election in a couple of months’ time. And Labour, especially the new generation of MPs coming through, people like myself, need to do much more than we have done in the past to maintain that interest, not only of young people but every age.”
He also believes the election could signal a sea change in the politics of the south-west. For decades the region has been the site of a straight fight between the Lib Dems (and their Liberal predecessors) and the Conservatives. But the collapse of the former has opened up an opportunity for Labour to gain a foothold and to target several seats next time round – some for the first time ever.
Alongside Pollard in Plymouth and Ben Bradshaw in Exeter, Labour are now in second place in 11 seats across Cornwall and Devon. In Cambourne and Redruth the party increased its share of the vote from 25% to more than 44%. In neighbouring Truro, it trebled its number of votes from 7,000 to over 21,000.
“We are on the cusp of winning seats that we have never won before,” Pollard says. “Right across Cornwall, I think the reason the Tories don’t want an election is because they are scared they will lose – because they will lose. Labour is on this trajectory not just because the party is doing well, but because the voters have had enough. They’ve had enough of Tory austerity and they’ve had enough of the south-west being ignored.”
Over the coming parliament – whether it lasts months or years – he says his mission will be to fight not just for Plymouth but for the wider West Country, a region he says has been given a raw deal by Westminster, and by Conservative MPs who have failed to stand up to “party bosses”.
“In the West Country there’s me and Ben. And then, what, 25 Tories? So our job is to harry and cause so much trouble that those Tories are so scared of losing their seats that they demand a better deal.
“They look at the moment like they accept a poor deal and that they will do as they are told by their party bosses. That’s because they do accept a poor deal, and they have done what they’re told by party bosses.
“It’s up to them if they want to do it from now on, but if they do that, they are going to get exposed. They’re going to have their electorate saying ‘wait a minute, why can Luke Pollard and Ben Bradshaw stand up for us but you can’t?’”
He also says he will be looking very carefully at changes to funding in any deal between the Conservatives and the DUP.
“The DUP have got Theresa May over a barrel. And they will use that to get more money,” he says. “It may not be written down, they will try to hide it away, but we’ll see it in the funding allocations. It’ll be there.
“And they can have more money. I have no problem with Northern Ireland getting decent funding – but we will get our fair share. If the Conservatives have found a magic money tree to fund billions of pounds extra for Northern Ireland, good on them. But we will have our fair share.”
He adds: “This is one of the reasons why I think the Conservatives fought so hard to stop Labour taking Sutton and Devonport – because they knew that if I won there then I would not rest, every single day I would be a thorn in their side.
“I’m going to highlight the poor deal the south-west gets. And I’ll make sure that if Conservatives vote against anything that’s good for the south-west then people will know about. They haven’t had that in the past, but they will now.”