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Vol. 41 No. 23 · 5 December 2019

‘A test case for Corbynism’

Ben Walker

Derby City Council​ ’s offices sit on the River Derwent, a stone’s throw from the site of Lombe’s Mill, built in 1721, which claims to be the first fully mechanised factory in the world. In his Tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain, Daniel Defoe called it a ‘curiosity of a very extraordinary nature … the engine contains 26,586 wheels and 97,746 movements, which work 73,726 yards of silk-thread every time the water-wheel goes round, which is three times in one minute, and 318,504,960 yards in one day and night.’ The mill is currently encased on all sides by hoardings, the building wreathed in scaffolding. In 2020 it will reopen as the Museum of Making, a celebration of the city’s long manufacturing history, which began with the silk from Lombe’s Mill. Derby is currently the British base for Rolls-Royce, Toyota and Bombardier. The number of people working in manufacturing jobs in the city is twice the national average. Trident was a key issue for voters there in 2017: the submarines are designed, built and maintained by Rolls-Royce Marine Power Operations Ltd at a plant in Raynesway, south-east of the city centre. Today, there are fears that Rolls-Royce will move its operations after Britain leaves the EU. In December 2018, the company moved design approval for large aerospace engines to Berlin and there are plans to axe around three thousand of its 15,700 employees in the next two years.

Flooded railway line

The local council building has recently been refurbished: its main entrance is now set in a glass façade exposing three floors of corridors and (mostly empty) meeting rooms. Councillor Fareed Hussain came to fetch me from the new waiting room, a vast atrium turning on a central column – like a version of the Great Court at the British Museum in miniature. He seemed relaxed: a councillor for almost two decades, he has been through election campaigns under four different Labour leaders. But when I asked him how things were going in Derby North he looked a little nervous. In February this year, Chris Williamson, the Labour MP for Derby North, was suspended from the party over the comments he made about antisemitism at a Momentum meeting in Sheffield. He was readmitted on 26 June, and suspended again two days later. ‘It’s stopped people in their tracks,’ Hussain said. ‘We don’t know who the candidate is going to be.’ Our meeting took place on the day Labour’s National Executive Committee was deciding whether or not Williamson would be allowed to stand as the party candidate. At the 2017 election Williamson said success in the seat was a ‘test case for Corbynism’, and the party fought hard to take it back from the Tories, who had won it by 41 votes in 2015. In the event Labour won by more than two thousand votes. It’s the kind of seat they will need to hold on to in the forthcoming election, and since a Brexit Party candidate is standing, there is an opportunity to take advantage of a split in the Brexit vote.

When I arrived campaigning hadn’t yet started, though it was almost a week since the election had been called. Towards the end of my conversation with Hussain, another councillor, Martin Repton, came along. He told me the situation with Williamson’s candidacy was ‘a little localised problem, which should be resolved today’. An hour later the NEC ruled that Williamson would not after all be permitted to stand in Derby North. A few hours after that he announced his intention to run as an independent candidate.

A lot has been made of the number of MPs who aren’t going to fight this election: 73 MPs are stepping down, with combined parliamentary experience of more than a thousand years. Yet this number isn’t unusual; if anything it’s slightly on the low side. The average in the elections from 1979 to 2015 was 86; the post-1945 record was in 2010, when 149 MPs resigned. But this election is only two years after the last one, and most of the MPs announced their decision very recently. In the 2015 snap election only 31 MPs stood down; 73 is a bumper number in a parliament cut short. What do you do if your candidate retires or is deselected at the last minute? In some cases the new candidates have been found close to home. Charlie Elphicke had the Tory whip removed in 2017 over allegations of sexual assault; he was charged in July this year. He has been replaced by his wife, Natalie Elphicke, a lawyer who in 2015 received an OBE for services to housing. In Burton, Andrew Griffiths, who resigned as the Tories’ small business minister after being caught sending two thousand texts ‘of a sexual nature’ to two female constituents in the space of 21 days, has endorsed his estranged wife, Kate Griffiths. ‘I have not sought, nor do I accept Andrew’s offer of political support,’ she said.

These late-in-the-day retirements can create opportunities for party leaders to place loyal candidates. It seems the Tories have been especially successful in this. According to Boris Johnson, all the incoming candidates have sworn to support his Brexit deal, in line with his insistence that only a Conservative majority will break the deadlock in Parliament. All 21 Conservative MPs who had the whip removed in September have been replaced with such candidates. Still, the vetting isn’t infallible. In Broxtowe – one of three constituencies that sit between Derby and Nottingham – the Brexit Party candidate, Calvin Robinson, was instructed to stand down, along with every other Brexit Party candidate in seats won last time by the Tories. He duly endorsed his Conservative rival, Darren Henry, who had been selected as the constituency candidate following the defection of Anna Soubry earlier this year to join the Independent Group for Change. Local Brexiteer sleuths took a look at Henry’s social media accounts and discovered that he had campaigned for Remain in 2016. Despite a clip posted to Twitter of an interview between Henry and Robinson in which Henry asserted his desire to ‘get Brexit done’, local Brexiteers have encouraged an independent candidate to stand against him. This election has even managed to split the Brexit Party.

Greg Marshall, the Labour candidate in Broxtowe, hasn’t stopped campaigning for two years. Selected not long before the 2017 election, he cut the Conservative majority from 4287 to 863 and was chosen to stand again five months later. In his constituency office, which has the feel of a war room, complete with a large map covered in strategic pins and string, he was at pains to stress to me that he’s the only candidate actually from the area: ‘The easier thing for me to do would be to have taken a job in Manchester Central, turned up and said I’ve always loved it in Manchester.’ He came to meet me after picking up his daughter from school, the same one he attended himself as a child. ‘My dad worked all his life in Broxtowe, at a place called Plessey.’ He segues into a point about the local labour market. This, too, is manufacturing country. ‘Plessey was a factory in Beeston that made telecommunication parts and employed about nine thousand people in its heyday. It was a major, major firm that isn’t there anymore.’ We talked about HS2 – recent plans include a stop in Toton, a village in the south-west of the Broxtowe constituency. Marshall is in favour: ‘I’m not bothered about getting to London ten or 15 minutes quicker, but the East Midlands has suffered one of the worst manufacturing declines in the country in the last twenty years. I think HS2 brought an opportunity to kickstart something, kind of an economic superhighway between Derby and Nottingham, with Broxtowe in the middle.’

While we spoke, a steady flow of people, young and old, came in and out of the room on the way to and from door-knocking sessions. The local party has been running three a day, starting as soon as the election was announced. ‘Historically you may have placed more value on voter identification, so you wouldn’t spend huge amounts of time on the doorstep. But now, data you may have relied on for decades is completely out the window. You don’t know where the votes are going to come from. So we have to spend quite a bit of time talking to people.’

Social media, Marshall says, is ‘taking a bigger and bigger chunk of campaign funding’. The Broxtowe Labour Facebook page posts daily updates: I arrived in the town on #Electionday10. Labour was a full week of campaigning ahead of the other parties. I bumped into a middle-aged couple who had driven over from Leicestershire to campaign for Soubry, still the incumbent MP but now leader of the Independent Group for Change. They told me they were handing out her first batch of leaflets, and asked hopefully if I was a student and a Remainer. At Marshall’s campaign launch four hundred people crowded into Beeston Victory Club. A woman in her mid-fifties told me that this was a bigger audience than in 2017, which ‘must count for something’. During his speech, Marshall pointed out a young man who had flown over from New Zealand for six weeks to take part in the campaign. A student from nearby Loughborough University told me that he had been in Uxbridge the day before, campaigning to unseat Johnson. A call and response of ‘What do we have? People!’ was conducted by more than one speaker. I wondered if Broxtowe was now the ‘test case for Corbynism’. Since its creation in 1983 the constituency has been a bellwether, returning candidates from the winning party in every general election. Or perhaps the Labour campaigns in Broxtowe and Derby North should be seen as representing the two sides of a divided Labour Party, test cases for two different aspects of Corbynism. On the one hand, a campaign in full flow, harnessing the power of its support base and honing the campaign tools that brought success in 2017. On the other, infighting and uncertainty.

On the night of 7 November, the day after Williamson’s announcement and two days before the Broxtowe launch event, a month’s worth of rain fell in one night across parts of the country. In Derby the Derwent had risen almost to the top of the arch of Exeter Bridge. I passed a house whose front garden was completely submerged. A Vote Labour sign had unmoored itself and was floating beside a garden gnome in the narrow driveway. Margaret Beckett, the Labour MP for Derby South, was one of the twenty MPs who voted against the snap election. She was, she said, concerned that the weather would ‘play a big part’ in any winter election. I imagine her worry was that a cold and wet 12 December might keep some voters away from the polls, not that the city would be underwater. Tony Tinley was announced as the new Labour candidate for Derby North the day after the floods. He seemed a sensible enough choice: a Unite regional officer who started working for Rolls-Royce as an apprentice aged 17. A week after his selection, though, Williamson wrote to Jennie Formby, the party’s general secretary, that ‘Labour has selected a candidate who … doesn’t live in the constituency; and has no public profile locally … the only hope of keeping the Tories out … is for Labour’s candidate – who has no chance of winning – to stand aside.’ Williamson referred to himself as the only pro-Corbyn candidate in Derby North. I’m struggling to think of another occasion on which someone has run against a party but in support of its leader. But then, that’s the kind of election this is. ‘In an ideal world you wouldn’t be having an election just before Christmas,’ Martin Repton told me over the phone a few days after I left Derby. ‘In an ideal world you wouldn’t be fighting an election in which you decide on your candidate with just four weeks to go.’

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Vol. 42 No. 1 · 2 January 2020

Ben Walker’s diary brought back memories of many weeks campaigning for the Derby North Labour Party in elections in the 1970s, when our candidate was my Thames TV colleague Phillip Whitehead (LRB, 5 December 2019). Contests were invariably tight, so Phillip’s ‘personal vote’ (which we estimated at between two and three thousand) was often crucial.

In the recent election, Chris Williamson, who had been the Labour MP for Derby North until he was suspended from the party earlier in 2019, ran as an independent. He attracted just 635 of the 47,002 cast, which suggests that the ‘infighting and uncertainty’ in the constituency to which Walker refers made little difference to the result. Indeed, the swing from Labour to Conservative in Derby North (4.77 per cent) was very similar to that in nearby Broxtowe (4.58 per cent), where Walker saw a campaign ‘in full flow, harnessing the power of its support base and honing the campaign tools that brought success in 2017’. The candidate, Greg Marshall, had not ‘stopped campaigning for two years’.

As it turned out, Marshall mislaid nearly four thousand votes between 2017 and 2019, and the swing from Labour to Conservative might have been even larger if the former MP, Anna Soubry, a rebel Tory who was representing the Independent Group for Change, had not effectively doubled the 2017 Liberal Democrat vote (that party having withdrawn in her favour) by siphoning off some sympathetic Tories. As for turnout, Derby South perhaps fulfilled Margaret Beckett’s fears about the weather – just 58.1 per cent of the electorate voted there – but Derby North managed 64.2 per cent and Broxtowe a very large 74.8 per cent (not that Marshall seemed to benefit much from it).

Walker also mentions the late replacement of candidates by their relatives. Perhaps the best story (which, of course, may be apocryphal) was one that Phillip Whitehead enjoyed recounting. Leicester North West Labour Party was told by its long- standing MP Barnett Janner, just before the 1970 election, that he would not be their candidate this time. ‘But Barnett, we’ve already printed the “Vote Janner” posters.’ ‘Not to worry,’ the departing MP said: ‘Allow me to introduce my son, Greville.’

David Elstein
London SW15

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