Election 2019: any witch way

At the most decisive general election since World War II many of the key swing seats are in the north, including the Conservative marginal constituency of Pendle

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The 31 October “do or die” deadline for departure from the European Union was already ringed on most Pendle calendars. Halloween happens to be the biggest day of the year across this part of Lancashire.

Tourist offices promote the area as Pendle Witch Country. Dominated by the brooding whaleback of Pendle Hill, it was in villages lying beneath its steep southern flank that the most infamous story of witchcraft in British history unfolded, leading to the execution of nine women and two men at Lancaster and York in 1612. Now you can hardly turn a corner in October without meeting scary figures wearing black pointed hats or dressed as ghouls or skeletons. This year there was even said to be a mock-up of the prime minister lying dead in a ditch.

But now Halloween has been and gone and a new date is ringed on Pendle calendars. On 12 December it becomes Pendle Which? Country. Which way will this marginal constituency vote in a general election that is essentially a straight local fight between Conservative and Labour.

“On the doorstep people are saying they can’t vote Tory now so they’ll go for the Lib Dems.”

Pendle Hill and its hinterland of largely Tory-voting villages provide a scenic backdrop to the main population centres in the largely working-class mill town of Nelson and neighbouring Colne, where there was significant immigration from Pakistan in the 1960s and more recently has seen a smaller influx from EU countries like Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Romania. Whilst unemployment is below the regional average, many jobs are low paid and there are several areas of poor housing.

The split in its demographic profile between the Tory blue belt and traditionally red rosette industrial towns turns Pendle into one of the most unpredictable northern battlegrounds in the December poll. It was a Labour seat from 1992 until won in 2010 by the Conservatives’ Andrew Stephenson, who managed to retain it in 2015 and 2017. What makes the fight especially interesting this time round is that Labour cut Stephenson’s majority from 5,453 to just 1,279 at the 2017 general election. His is one of Jeremy Corbyn’s top target seats in the north of England.

If you believe the Electoral Calculus website, which tries to predict the likely vote in every constituency by extrapolating findings of national opinion polls, then Pendle has already been called as a Tory hold. The incumbent Stephenson is said to be 73 per cent certain of retaining the seat according to the website’s analysis, with the Labour challenger Azhar Ali’s chances put at just 27 per cent.

That doesn’t match the small and completely random vox pop conducted by Big Issue North last week in Nelson town centre. Of 20 people questioned only three admitted they were planning to vote Conservative, seven said they were so disillusioned they wouldn’t vote for anyone, and the remainder were Labour voters who cited protecting the NHS rather than the party’s still-confusing EU position as the main issue. A different result would no doubt have been found on the streets of the more Tory-supporting town of Barnoldswick.

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At Labour’s campaign offices in Nelson, Ali shrugs off the Electoral Calculus prediction, pointing out that anyone who follows Lancashire politics knows that the website’s forecast of Tory wins in towns like neighbouring Burnley are seriously wide of the mark and so make the Pendle claim absurd.

“I still expect it to be a tight fight,” concedes Ali, who leads the opposition Labour group on Lancashire County Council and grew up in the constituency. “A lot will depend on the Liberal Democrat campaign because I’m hearing on the doorstep people saying that they can’t vote for the Conservatives now so they’ll go for the Lib Dems. I think that could lose the Tories quite a lot of support.”

This is when he manages to get people to open their doors to him. A feature of this first winter general election since 1974 is that candidates are finding it hard to do canvassing after dark.

Ali admits he is fighting an anti-Corbyn prejudice, but takes heart from his previous experience of county council electioneering in which voters initially told him “sod off, I’m not voting for that clown, he’s a terrorist sympathiser” then changed their minds when they started listening to Corbyn policies like free prescriptions, free personal care and scrapping tuition fees.

Until the announcement by Nigel Farage that he was pulling out all Brexit candidates standing in Tory-held seats, the main discussion was about how much a Brexit option would benefit Labour by swinging anti-EU voters away from the Conservative. But just as local financial fraud consultant Tim McCullough was getting his campaign going in Pendle he was told to stand down. His first response was to describe the decision as “disappointing to the many voters in Pendle who wished to vote for a clean Brexit”. But McCullough added it was the right decision, to maximise the number of Leave candidates that might be elected.

There are many in Pendle who see Brexit as the main issue. In the 2015 general election Ukip mined their support by polling a respectable 5,415 votes but the party didn’t field a candidate in 2017. Political number crunchers can have fun looking at how the Labour vote increased by 5,182 in the absence of a Ukip candidate. Were they Labour voters who returned to the fold once the EU Brexit referendum had been won? And who will these ex-Ukip supporters vote for next month?

Whether there is significant support for a no-deal Brexit in Pendle will not now be known, at least not at this general election. Stephenson, although having campaigned to leave the EU in 2016, has voted three times in favour of the deal negotiated by Theresa May, then voted again in favour of Boris Johnson’s revised deal.

Ali describes Stephenson as a “career politician” who has never deviated from the Conservative Party line and slowly climbed the lower rungs of government. After being Boris Johnson’s Parliamentary Private Secretary he worked in the whips office and is now Africa and International Development minister at the Foreign Office.

It would have been good to convey Stephenson’s current thinking on deal or no deal, but he refused to be interviewed for this article. He has also, at the time of writing, declined to commit to participating in debates with other candidates at three hustings planned by the interfaith community organisation Building Bridges.

The Liberal Democrat candidate in Pendle, Gordon Lishman, sees a change taking place in the local Conservative Party that may hurt Stephenson’s vote at the election. Lishman, a veteran of local politics and a councillor in nearby Burnley, says he is hearing of long-time Conservative members saying they no longer feel at home with the Tories and stepping back from being activists.

The Lib Dem vote declined from 9,095 in 2010 to just 941 in 2017, broadly in line with the party getting a nationwide electoral kicking for entering into their coalition with the Conservatives. Observers expect Lishman to at least get well into four figures this time.

The former national chief executive of Age Concern, he describes Brexit as a “howl of rage at the failure of the political establishment” and believes the failure can’t be resolved by determining Brexit one way or the other. “We need to change the things which make people angry and find a way of rebuilding trust in politics,” he says. As the only candidate offering an unequivocal home to Remain voters, he expects to pick support from both Conservative and Labour.

There is one policy that unites all candidates. There isn’t much talk of HS1 or HS2 in Pendle but plenty of support for CS1 and CS2. They refer to the proposed rebuilding of the Colne to Skipton railway line and the second-phase upgrading and electrification of the line to Burnley. These would provide what many people believe is the missing link in the transpennine rail network, making it possible to commute to jobs in Leeds and Bradford.

Lishman has been around long enough in Pendle political circles to see a gradual decline in firm political allegiances for Labour and Conservative. The decline in the industrial base has been accompanied by a desire to support whoever the anti-establishment candidate is at the time. In the past this has seen the Lib Dems benefit. It also worked well for British National Party candidates at local elections, says Lishman, until people found out they were useless as councillors.

“Those people who’ve voted for five different parties in the last 20 years have not necessarily changed their own views on things, they’ve just voted for whoever they felt was right at the time. Now that Liberal Democrats are back to being an insurgent rather than an establishment party we may do better. We are much happier representing views on climate change or issues of equality, which are in danger of being drowned out in this election.”

2019 Candidates:
Azhar Ali, Labour
Clare Hales, Green
Gordon Lishman, Liberal Democrat
Andrew Stephenson, Conservative

2017 Result: 
Conservative 21,986
Labour 20,707
Lib Dem 941
BNP 718
Green 502
Conservative majority 1,279 (2.8%)
Turnout 44,854 (69%)

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