Election 2019:
Season’s greetings

Unthinkable just a few years ago, the safe Labour seat of Don Valley is tipped to fall to the Conservatives for the first time

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Caroline Flint is fearless. At Westminster, for instance, would she really dare to defy Labour and make common cause with Tories like Jacob Rees-Mogg because most voters in her constituency backed Brexit? She didn’t flinch from the task.

Or when she’s out electioneering, is she brave enough to be filmed right next to a ferocious Harris’s hawk as it emits spine-chilling shrieks? No problem. “It’s made my election,” she purrs, boldly stroking the bird of prey’s breast. “If I take nothing away from this I’ve got a video.”

Flint says the Conservatives adopted a “slash and burn” approach to winding down the coal industry

Whether she takes anything from the election wouldn’t normally be in doubt. Labour has held the Don Valley seat since it was created in 1918, and Flint first became its MP in 1997. But the former mining area is a prime Brexit battleground. At the EU referendum the constituency voted by 68.49 per cent to 31.51 per cent in favour of leaving, one of the highest Leave votes in the UK. Since then, in Don Valley and the other two Labour-held Doncaster seats the party’s scuppering of the EU withdrawal agreements has been widely seen as anti-democratic. Flint’s chances of re-election are under serious threat.

In 2017 her majority over the Conservatives shrank by a third to 5,169. This time she is pitched against both Tory and Brexit candidates as she campaigns in the swathe of 30 villages and small towns that make up her South Yorkshire constituency. Many of them have names that were once synonymous with coal mining. Denaby Main colliery, for example, was sunk in the 1860s, and in Victorian times the village was described as “the worst in England”.

Over on the east side of the A1(M), Rossington dates from 1915, and the pit was one of the last in the Doncaster area to produce coal. It is now a vast building site for 1,200 new homes.

On a cold winter’s afternoon outside Rossington Miners Welfare Club, Flint and her husband Phil Cole join half a dozen or so Labour faithfuls to distribute bundles of election addresses in the village. They spread out to cover different estates, Flint unmistakably the Labour candidate in red coat and woolly red hat that’s just lacking a white pom-pom to complete the seasonal image.

In one street she bends down to an ankle-level letterbox and suggests someone should pass a law to make waist-high letterboxes mandatory. “And maybe doors should be painted Day-Glo to make them stand out in bad light during December elections,” she says not too seriously.

Later she returns to the Labour Party office right next to Doncaster’s Robin Hood Airport. Perhaps it is coincidence, it is suggested, that like
the eponymous outlaw, Labour’s manifesto promises to take from the rich and give to the poor.

Flint smiles. “It seems to me a good society is one that wants to create the sort of wealth for us to be able to have services we can all share, whether it’s the NHS or a safety net in terms of welfare, schools for our kids and houses for everybody, whether they own or rent. In a good society fair redistribution is good.”

In her constituency and other parts of South Yorkshire, she says, the Conservatives adopted a “slash and burn” approach to winding down the coal industry. It took away the sense of community and self-reliance as well as pay packets. She’s seen small towns and villages like those she represents lose out compared with the renaissance of cities like Leeds and Sheffield.

Brexit candidate Paul Whitehurst says politics is more corrupt than his day job in car sales. Main image: Caroline Flint.

More recently there has been noticeable inward investment to the Don Valley in the shape of huge aircraft hangar-like warehouses. The area has become a vast distribution hub with heading towards two million square feet of floorspace already built and big names like Amazon, Fellowes and CEVA Logistics moving in. But the wages don’t compare with mining and manufacturing jobs. And ironically, much of the infrastructure cash has come from the EU’s regional development fund. It seems a tad ungrateful for local people to turn their backs on Europe.

Flint herself campaigned to remain in the EU back in 2016. She points out that as far as her recent divergence from the party line is concerned there’s nothing new in Labour being split over Europe. People have seen it as a Tory problem, she says, but her party’s had its less publicised divisions since the days of Harold Wilson.

“The vast majority of people who have got in touch with me since the referendum have wanted us to just get on with it, and to be honest that includes Remain voters as well. There’s frustration that parliament hasn’t sorted this.”

Whether or not her conversion to the Brexit cause will be enough to get her re-elected is in doubt, however. The voting predictions website Electoral Calculus has Don Valley down as a Conservative gain, giving the Tory candidate Nick Fletcher a 17 per cent greater chance of winning over Flint. It is no longer unthinkable, since the Tories gained a handful of traditional Labour seats in Leave areas such as Mansfield and Walsall North in 2017.

This is despite Fletcher – who runs an electrical contracting business and has no political experience, even as a councillor – being reticent about discussing his campaign with the media. Repeated requests from Big Issue North for an interview drew no response, and he seems to be elusive in large parts of the constituency.

Not so the Brexit Party candidate, Paul Whitehurst, a car salesman whose street stall is a familiar sight in the Don Valley. “I know my business has a reputation for being underhand but I can assure you it doesn’t hold a candle to politics,” he says while campaigning in the town of Thorne. “People here are not happy with the current two-party system. It’s not working for them. In this town the main jobs are working in a chicken processing plant or a Yorkshire pudding factory.”

It’s a mistake to think he’ll simply take votes off the Tories and let Flint get back in, he says. Long-time Labour voters are telling him they’re switching to him to get Brexit done, and couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Jeremy Corbyn.

So who do Remainers back in Don Valley? The options are not hopeful. The Liberal Democrats polled less than a thousand votes in 2017, and the Greens did not contest the seat. Mark Alcock, the Lib Dem candidate, says the election will be a “de facto referendum on Brexit” and raises the somewhat forlorn hope that if the party wins a majority “we would on day one revoke Article 50 and bring to an end to Brexit.”

In the Don Valley, at least, there are no signs that voters are listening.

Go to the Features section of our website to read reports from Pendle and Cheadle

Candidates: 

Mark Alcock, Liberal Democrat
Nick Fletcher, Conservative
Caroline Flint, Labour
Chris Holmes, Yorkshire Party
Kate Needham, Green
Paul Whitehurst, Brexit Party

2017 result: 
Labour 24,351
Conservative 19,182
Yorkshire Party 1,599
Liberal Democrats 866

Turnout 62.2 per cent
Labour majority: 5,169


‘The upsets could be absolutely massive’

Which way should a Remain-supporting MP jump if their constituents decisively voted Leave? Should they back Brexit, or stick to their beliefs and support a second referendum?

This question is dominating the campaign for many northern Labour MPs hoping to return to Westminster, and makes the election’s outcome the most difficult to predict in living memory. Leeds University politics lecturer Victoria Honeyman says: “When the results are declared after polls close on 12 December there’s barely a seat that isn’t worth watching. The upsets could be absolutely massive.”

Caroline Flint in the Don Valley is one Labour candidate who chose to accommodate the Leave voters in her constituency. Other Labour colleagues in Brexit-backing constituencies like Mary Creagh in Wakefield, Yvette Cooper in Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford, and Paula Sheriff in Dewsbury have opposed the government’s EU withdrawal position.

At the heart of their dilemma is the question of what an MP’s job is supposed to be. By tradition MPs are not mere mouthpieces for their constituents, but exist to do what they believe is in the country’s best interests.

Because some MPs like Flint decided to put aside their own views and back the majority of their constituents, Honeyman says, that puts pressure on others to also change their minds.

“Brexit is the poison running through the election debate at the moment. We’ve seen increased threats of violence, increased racism, increasing numbers of abusive messages to MPs, and quite frankly it’s no wonder that many like Luciana Berger in Liverpool have decided enough is enough and either changed constituencies or just given up altogether”.


Yorkshire Party lines up candidates

Don Valley is one of 28 constituencies being contested by the Yorkshire Party, whose flagship policy is the establishment of a devolved Yorkshire Assembly similar to those in Scotland and Wales.

Founded in 2014, it immediately polled 19,017 votes (1.5 per cent) in European Parliament elections. Within three years it was the sixth most voted party in England, out-polling the Liberal Democrats and Greens at local elections in Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham. The party currently has councillors in North and East Yorkshire.

At the 2017 general election the party came third in Don Valley with 1,599 votes, almost double the Liberal Democrats’ figure. Its candidate this time is Chris Holmes, a 27-year-old transport planner, who says decision-making in London has consistently left Yorkshire at an economic disadvantage to the South East.

“We know what’s best for us,” he says. “It’s not Yorkshire independence we’re talking about – it’s about Yorkshire having a fairer deal financially and having more control.”

The party didn’t take a position on Brexit in the EU referendum. However, since Yorkshire was largely a Leave-voting area it believes that decision should be respected.

Other polices include declaring a Yorkshire-wide climate emergency – the region has suffered more flooding than others in the UK – by going carbon-neutral by 2030, and building a super-modern transport network. The party is lukewarm about HS2, preferring to see investment in the high speed Northern Powerhouse rail line between Hull and Liverpool.

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