Cllr Paul Mercer is a member of Charnwood Borough Council. He is a member of its cabinet with responsibility for Strategic and Private Sector Housing.
Over the past five weeks, the Conservatives in Loughborough South, one of the Leicestershire County Council divisions, have visited every single house and flat at least once, and have started to revisit the more productive areas. As the election agent for the candidate, fellow Charnwood councillor Ted Parton, I have spoken to more than 2,500 electors.
Having canvassed for the Conservative Party for many years, I always thought that I had a good feel for where our support would be found, and that merely announcing that one was the Tory candidate would occasionally provoke an angry response. What we have seen during this campaign suggests that a significant change may have taken place in the minds of many electors, because we have been finding staunch Conservative voters in unlikely areas and there has been very little hostility.
Loughborough South consists of two council wards which have been traditionally held by the Labour Party. In 2012 Ted narrowly won a by-election in one of the wards – Southfields – and in 2015 I stood as his running mate. The Labour Party put a considerable effort into preventing us from getting elected. Activists were drafted in from Leicester and we even had a visit from Tom Watson. None of this had any effect, and Ted was re-elected with a significant majority, and I ousted the other sitting Labour councillor. This time Ted is up against the leader of the Labour group on the county council, and to be elected would represent a significant political and psychological victory for the Conservatives.
During the 2015 election campaign, it was clear that there was more Conservative support, but we also found a significant number of Labour voters as well as Greens and Liberal Democrats, and all of them achieved a respectable result. When we started door knocking in late March, we were expecting a similar kind of reaction on the doorstep, but it soon became apparent that two changes had occurred.
First, the hostility towards the Conservatives seemed to have disappeared, and instead electors politely said that they were undecided or were not voting.
Second, virtually no-one was prepared to say that they supported any of the smaller parties and, even in the most unlikely streets, the number of Conservative pledges was outnumbering Labour supporters by a factor of four to one.
During the course of campaigning we have encountered many poignant examples of this apparent shift that seems to have occurred in the way in which the electorate regards the main parties:
- We knocked on the door of a small council owned bungalow and a middle-aged man, wearing a vest and covered in tattoos, smoking a roll up asked us what we wanted. We politely explained that Ted was the Conservative candidate and the man replied in a strong Glaswegian accent: “Of course I will be voting Conservative to keep that Corbyn out!”
- We visited a lady in her 80s, and she explained calmly that her late husband had been the local councillor for the ward and that she had always supported the Labour Party. She then said that she had decided that she was now going to vote Conservative on this occasion and that she had a lot of respect for Theresa May. Pushing her a little, she explained that the Prime Minister was “more one of us than that Corbyn person will ever be”.
- Further down the road we knocked on a house which was run down, had an old car in the front garden and a big man, with the obligatory ‘Staffie’ behind him opened the door, glared at us, and asked what we wanted. When we explained he responded: “We’re Tories in this house – the Mrs is in bed but I’ll tell you called. You’ve got our vote”.
- Finally, the occupier of a nearby council house declared that he had not voted for the local MP, Nicky Morgan, at the last election before explaining that this was because he had been in prison but intended to do so this time.
On numerous occasions, we came across electors who said that they had always voted Labour in the past but, for the first time ever, they intended to vote Conservative often adding that there was “no other choice” or mentioning Corbyn.
We spent a lot of time in the Shelthorpe estate, part of the division which is predominantly made up of 1930s council houses and during the course of campaigning attempted to identify the reasons why this change in attitude had occurred.
The most obvious reasons that many of the electors cited was Brexit. In early 2016, a group of Conservative students, led by a young maths student, Adam Stares, carried out an opinion poll in the area about Europe. He reported that, having spoken to 330 electors ,more than 70 per cent of them were intending to vote and that a staggering 95 per cent of these were planning to vote to leave. I was present at the opening of the ballot boxes and it was clear from seeing the papers from this ward that this was indeed how they had voted. Numerous voters mentioned to us on the doorstep this time that the Conservatives were “taking us out of Europe” and that is why they were supporting us.
Despite the electors’ overriding interest in Europe, there has been absolutely no interest in the UK Independence Party on the doorstep and this has not been helped by their decision to select a 92-year-old candidate and not carry out any leafleting at all. Indeed, both the Green Party and the Liberal Democrat candidates have been equally invisible.
The second reason was a complete lack of confidence in the Labour Party. Although a few residents said that the sitting Labour councillor had assisted them, the vast majority claimed that they had never received a visit and that we were the first canvassers that they had ever spoken to. Many of them said that the party was no longer credible with Jeremy Corbyn as its leader and they had no sympathy with his political views. They felt that the Labour Party had abandoned the white working class and that it was solely interested in representing minority groups.
The final reason was an affinity towards the Prime Minister. They felt that Theresa May, whilst not necessarily one of them, was far closer to their values and understood their aspirations. Many voters said that they believed she was most likely to pursue policies that would benefit them and their families. Amongst some of the older women there appeared to be a deep admiration for the Prime Minister, and a significant number said that they were voting Conservative because they thought highly of what she had achieved and felt she was an effective leader.
Talking to people on the doorstep gives a refreshing and often revealing insight into what motivates people into deciding which party they will support and, critically, whether they are even going to bother to vote. What has been very clear over the past month is that there has been a sea change in the way in which many voters perceive politics and that this has largely been a consequence of the referendum. The impact seems to have been to reinforce the Conservative vote, completely marginalise the other parties and lead Labour voters into doubting their traditional loyalties.
It is difficult to say whether these changes are temporary or permanent, but several electors remarked to us that the longer Labour takes to get its house in order and starts to present realistic policies with a credible leader the less likely they will be to support the party in the future.
What ultimately happens does, of course, depend on the electors on the day. Given that we are taking on the sitting councillor, who is also a borough councillor for the area, and is well-known, affable and competent, the result is by no means certain. What happens in Loughborough South on May 4th is also likely to get lost in the results of the other 4,850 seats that are being contested but, given that the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party felt it necessary to travel all the way from London into the division to unsuccessfully assist his candidates two years ago, it may provide an indication of the challenge that the party has of ever getting elected into office again.