Election 2019:
Lib Dems’ burglary hotspot

Battle lines are being drawn in Cheadle, one of the most interesting political fights in the general election

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On a crisp and sunlit Saturday afternoon a small group of adults meet on the corner of two leafy streets of pre-war semis in south Manchester. Unusually for such a quiet residential area the junction is liberally marked out with double yellow lines, and one of those present – a local councillor – waves a clipboard towards them and says with pride that they’re an example of Liberal Democrats consulting the community about parking problems.

As it happens, the yellow lines also reflect the colour of the suburb’s political leanings. On the local Stockport Borough Council the ward’s three councillors are all Lib Dems. Now the party is wishing for an early Christmas present by winning the entire parliamentary seat of Cheadle on 12 December.

The adults soon disperse from the junction to knock on doors, push leaflets through letterboxes and canvass support for their candidate. Cheadle is one of the party’s top target seats in England, since over the past two decades the constituency has swung back and forth between the Lib Dems and Conservatives, whose incumbent Mary Robinson won with a majority of 4,507 in 2017. This time round it is expected to be a close contest, perhaps even as tight as in 2001 when the Lib Dems took the seat by a margin of just 33 votes.

The issue of Europe makes the contest especially interesting. In the 2016 referendum Cheadle voted by 57.35 to 42.65 per cent for Britain to remain in the EU. That result now puts the Lib Dems’ anti-Brexit policy head to head with the hardline Conservative approach to Europe.

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Soon, the door-knockers are joined by their candidate in the general election, Tom Morrison, an affable thirty-something communications strategist whose waxed jacket makes him look more county set than at home in suburban Cheadle. At the 2017 general election he carried the Lib Dem flag in the safe Labour seat of St Helens North and polled just 1,287 votes, an experience he describes as “my apprenticeship”.

Morrison hopes to do a lot better this time and is talking a good fight. “We’re getting a lot of Conservatives who are saying they don’t see that the party is representing them. Brexit has really changed the way people view politics. And on that issue voters are saying the Labour Party haven’t covered themselves in glory either, haven’t pinned themselves to a position, and there’s the additional factor of Labour voters saying they are not happy with Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. This is a fascinating election.”

The Labour candidate, not surprisingly, takes a different and more combative view on Brexit. As he campaigns a mile or so away in the main shopping street at Gatley, Dr Zahid Chauhan, a GP and councillor in Oldham – where he is cabinet member for health and social care – accuses the Lib Dems and Conservatives of using Brexit as a smokescreen.

“It was the impact of six years of austerity on so many people’s lives that led to the Brexit vote. That’s what people were reacting to when they voted. We saw in the coalition that Lib Dems and Tories are two sides of the same coin, and they have contributed to the child poverty and homelessness we see today. Everything that’s happening now is a result of their joint policies and you can’t just pretend that somehow their hands are clean in relation to Brexit.”

On paper it will be an uphill task for Labour to win the seat, which the party has never held. Coming third in 2017, its vote of 10,417 was at least a slight improvement on 2015. However, this time they have in Dr Chauhan a strong candidate who may perform better than national polls suggest. He is a campaigner on health inequalities and problems in the NHS, and three years ago founded the Homeless-Friendly charity, a network of GPs in Greater Manchester who ensure that those without a permanent address can get access to the same healthcare enjoyed by others.

Most social and economic indicators suggest that Cheadle has few problems. At 2.9 per cent unemployment is well below the UK average. The level of poor health is put at just 4.5 per cent, and almost 84 per cent of homes are owner-occupier. Despite its outwardly comfortable middle-class appearance, though, Cheadle has issues associated with more disadvantaged areas. The SK8 postcode covering the constituency is one of the UK’s top 10 burglary hotspots, according to a survey by MoneySuperMarket. The only other northern area on the list is Harehills in inner-city Leeds.

Ed Leavy, who runs the local church-based homelessness charity Loaves and Fishes, says he is seeing more poverty than before and some rough sleepers camping out behind local churches, while the food banks run by the charity are busier than ever. “There’s another side to this area that many people don’t see. There’s poverty here for sure, and we have homeless people coming and asking for food bank vouchers.”

Robinson won the seat from the Lib Dems in 2015. She supported the Remain side at the EU referendum but since then has voted for both Theresa May’s and Boris Johnson’s withdrawal agreement. Brexit, she says, is still a big talking point on the doorstep. “People I’m meeting understand that the reason why we’re having this election is precisely because of the issues we’ve had over getting agreement in parliament for a deal to move forward. I’m very keen to do that.”

One of her main campaign thrusts has been protection of the green belt in Cheadle, part of which is under threat from large housing developments. “The green belt is valuable to people in terms of mental health and clean air, and we need to ensure we keep it,” she says.

Cheadle is one of several key North West battlegrounds that may well determine the outcome of the general election nationally, according to Andrew Russell, politics professor at Liverpool University. “If the Liberal Democrats can’t retake Cheadle then you would kind of think the game is up as far as the party making a breakthrough on 12 December is concerned,” he says. “After all it voted Remain in 2016, is a former seat of theirs and the party has managed to gained seats on the local council in recent years, so they should be pretty hopeful of winning it back.”

He believes that to the Conservatives, holding Cheadle and the nearby constituency of Hazel Grove – where the Lib Dems are also the main challenger – is just as crucial. If the Conservatives assume they will, as predicted, lose seats in Scotland then they have to make gains in the north of England and Midlands in order to get an overall majority. “Whilst doing that they mustn’t neglect the fairly marginal seats they hold already. Both Cheadle and Hazel Grove are acid tests for them.”

Click here for the first in this series, covering Pendle.

Main image: Conservative Mary Robinson

Zahid Chauhan, Labour
Tom Morrison, Liberal Democrats
Mary Robinson, Conservative

2017 result: 
Conservative 24,331
Liberal Democrat 19,824
Labour 10,417

Turnout 74.3 per cent

Conservative majority 4,507

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