Something unusual is happening in Bolton North East. None of the local Tories can remember anything like it. Labour voters are saying in considerable numbers that they intend to switch straight to the Conservatives.
James Daly, the Conservative candidate, who lost by 4,377 votes to Labour when he stood here in 2015, said this is a “unique” election, because “Brexit magnifies the question of leadership”.
He added that he has “not come across one voter who feels their interests are better represented by Jeremy Corbyn than by Theresa May”.
In Daly’s opinion, “the impact of Jeremy Corbyn is a unique impact in British politics”.
David Greenhalgh, who is running the campaign in Bolton North East and leads the Conservative group on Bolton council, confirmed that “we’re getting numbers of direct switchers from Labour to Conservative”, and added: “That has not happened as long as I’ve been involved, which is 30 years.”
He was nevertheless at pains to caution that the result “could be close”, for Bolton contains three groups who are disinclined to change their political allegiance: an above average number of benefit recipients, a high number of public sector employees, and a large minority ethnic population.
Nadim Muslim, 23, who is helping to do the numbers for the campaign, showed me a recent set of canvas returns from a Labour ward in Bolton, so one where the Conservatives have not normally canvassed, which showed 49 per cent “strong Conservatives”, a figure in line with national polling.
If various categories, including “waverers”, are added together, it is possible to get Labour up to somewhere in the mid-twenties. But these returns suggest that UKIP, which got nearly 19 per cent of the vote here in 2015, or 8,117 votes, has slumped to only four per cent.
“UKIP does seem to be pretty dead,” Daly remarked.
The Conservative headquarters in Bolton North East are in a former shop on Blackburn Road, a long, straight thoroughfare leading north out of Bolton. On one side stands the Impact Dental & Implant Laboratory, on the other Diamond Nails, while on the opposite side of the road is an Asda supermarket.
In the window of the Conservative office is found the slogan: “Labour has ruined Bolton. Don’t let Labour ruin Britain.”
And on the leaflets the Conservatives were handing out yesterday is found the strap line: “Vote for James Daly, standing with Theresa May on 8 June.”
On Wednesday 19th April, May herself came to Bolton North East, 48th on the party’s list of targets, to launch the election campaign she had announced the day before in Downing Street. Quite a few voters mentioned this visit, and seemed pleased by it.
But although it is correct to write up her and Corbyn’s contrasting forms of leadership as a decisive factor in Bolton, it would be misleading to regard these national factors as the only ones.
Daly got 14,164 votes when he stood here against the sitting Labour MP, Sir David Crausby, in 2015, and the Conservatives received much the same when they first lost the seat to him in 1997. The party was never wiped out: it just stopped winning.
In 2015, the neighbouring seat of Bolton West, which Labour held on to by a mere 92 votes in 2010, was the priority, and was regained by Chris Green for the Conservatives by 801 votes. As I reported at the time from Bolton West for ConHome, Labour in this area was already “ripe for shaking”.
The Conservatives were likewise ripe for regeneration. Daly, who is 41, is the son of a single mother from Huddersfield. At his comprehensive school, he got four GCSEs, but he afterwards managed to qualify as a lawyer and become a defence solicitor, a trade he practices in the nearby town of Bury, where he also leads the Conservative group of councillors.
Although uncomplacent about his own chances, Daly looks forward to the election on 8 June of “a new breed of Conservative MPs who are going to go in with a determination to change the world…making the country even better and giving greater opportunity to people.”
As soon as he had said this, he added, in a self-deprecating tone: “That’s a complete cliché, but I think the Labour Party would think that’s a cliché they owned.”
In his view, Labour regard the handing out of large amounts of money as sufficient evidence of virtue, quite regardless of whether the money is spent to good effect.
Yesterday afternoon, Daly took me canvassing in the streets around the former Falcon Mill, which was built in 1908 and closed in 1994: a generally Labour area.
“This is the first time I’ve seen a politician in 50 years,” the first lady who opened the door said with a laugh. “Oh no, 20 years ago Labour came round.”
She said for her the choice is between UKIP and the Conservatives, and last time she voted Conservative. She is certainly not going to vote Labour, for she is angry with the local Labour council for failing to repair her pavement.
Part of the charm of knocking on doors is that you never know what to expect. “I’m not against the Conservatives,” the man at the next house said. “I’m a member of the Conservative Club down in Astley Bridge since 1974.
“But there’s only one thing that puts me off: Theresa May. I do not like her – to me she’s Margaret Thatcher in disguise. That smirk! She can’t even smile.
“My dad was in the mill till he was 70. He had no money, he always voted Labour, that’s how I did at the beginning. I’m basically Labour.”
Daly: “What do you think of Jeremy Corbyn?”
The householder: “He’s talking daft, talking daft things, promising things they can’t deliver.”
A woman who was doing her mother’s front garden said: “Theresa May’s got the clout to take us through all this Brexit. She’s got that clout and she doesn’t rile me up like Thatcher did.
“But my husband works for the Royal Mail. You lot privatised it. What happens there? He’s been a Labour voter. What happens if Labour gets in? He’s got shares [in Royal Mail]. Some of his colleagues have cashed it in. He hasn’t.”
She lives in another part of Bolton, where she is worried about fly-tipping: “It was such a nice place and everything’s just ruined.” She is also concerned about the number of people coming into the area: “Is Bolton getting paid a lot of money to take a lot of other people in?”
Another man said: “UKIP’s finished. There’s no one else to vote for. It’s got to be blue – it’s as simple as that.”
He used to support Labour, but won’t do so now: “They’ve got nothing to offer. I’m 74 years old. I can never forgive Tony Blair for what he did to the country. That Gordon Brown, calling that woman bitter.”
Daly: “That was in Rochdale [not far from Bolton].”
A man in his seventies said: “Mr Cameron had more presence than Mrs May. Mrs May is a more genuine person than Mr Cameron. I’ve not decided, but I generally vote for the Conservative Party in most elections.”
He was, however, more worried by the closure of toilets in the middle of Bolton: “I need the toilet every hour and ten minutes. When you go into town you have to bear it in mind all the time.”
As we walked away from this voter’s house, Daly said: “You see while you’re down in London discussing these great issues, for people like him it’s toilets, not Brexit.”
Another man who used to vote Labour said: “”Oh I’ll be voting Tory. I hope she’ll do a good job or I’ll be changing again.”
Quite a few householders did not want to talk to Daly, tactful though he is about not forcing his opinions on the electorate. But I had the impression that while some of these uncommunicative voters could be ardent socialists, most of them are not going to vote for anyone.
If these trends persist until polling day on 8th June, the Conservatives will win back Bolton North East, which they last held from 1983-97 (though to be strictly accurate, in 1996 the sitting MP, Peter Thurnham, declared himself independent, before defecting to the Liberal Democrats).