BARROW-IN-FURNESS, CUMBRIA — A key constituency to keep an eye on as the results come through on general election night is Barrow-in-Furness.
Barrow, a working-class stronghold at the outermost reaches of north-west England, has voted Labour in every general election since 1987.
Situated on the tip of the Furness peninsula, 50 miles from the nearest city in Lancaster, it is an industrial town where for many families voting Labour has been a tradition passed down from one generation to the next.
However, this year it is one of the country’s most fascinating marginal seats. Labour’s margin of victory over the Conservatives here at the last election was just 1.8%, and the current feeling among local activists is that Barrow could be the next northern seat to fall through Labour’s grasp.
“It’s going to be really tough here. I am clearly the underdog in this election,” Labour MP for Barrow-in-Furness John Woodcock told me when I met up with him at a charity football tournament in Swarthmoor, a small village nine miles from Barrow.
Woodcock like many of his Labour colleagues faces losing his job on June 8, with Barrow among the many seats the Tories are targeting as part of their plot to crush Labour at the ballot box.
“We all know Theresa May and the Conservatives are going to be returned with another majority,” he tells me.
“So the choice is either do you want a strong independent local voice speaking up for the area? — which is what I’ve always made my priority — or do you want a Tory nodding dog who isn’t going to challenge the really difficult things that are going to come down the track?”
Anyone who follows Woodcock will recognise him as one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal critics within Labour.
He described the party as being “f***ed” shortly after Corbyn was first elected leader in 2015 and last week released a video message to Barrow voters announcing his intention to stand this time around — but with the rather large caveat that he cannot endorse his own leader to be prime minister.
“I intend to seek re-nomination from my local Labour and Co-operative parties to be their official candidate,” he said in a video message posted on social media.
“But I will not countenance ever voting to make Jeremy Corbyn Britain’s Prime Minister. I realise that Jeremy has been elected and then re-elected as the leader of my party, but my first duty is to you, my constituents.
“Jeremy’s opposition to the Trident renewal programme is lifelong and is well-known. But more than that, I cannot countenance endorsing him for a role which I think even he, although he may say differently in front of the cameras, does not think he is fit to carry out.”
Woodcock told me he had no regrets about coming out against his own leader just six weeks before the election.
“I’ve taken the highly unusual and controversial step of saying what I’ve said about my own party leader because I thought it was important to level with people and be honest about what I thought. I want them to have the chance to vote for a Labour voice without having concerns over what effect that could have the town.
“My sense so far is people know where I stand and that I’m always someone who has said what I’ve thought is right even if it gets me into trouble.”
Corbyn’s well-documented desire to scrap Britain’s nuclear deterrent is what makes Barrow such a tricky battleground for Labour. Woodcock was a leading voice in the effort to maintain the party’s long-term commitment to the country’s nuclear deterrent, in opposition to Corbyn’s protestations. BAE Systems, the town’s single biggest employer, builds the submarines that once completed are set to carry the Trident nuclear missiles. Speak to any local and they are guaranteed to have a relative or close friend who works in what’s known locally as the “yard”.
“He [Corbyn] is a student politician who has spent his entire career trying to shut down the industries that make this town. It’s as simple as that,” Barrow’s Tory candidate Simon Fell told me. I met Fell in a cafe just a few hundred yards away from Devonshire Dock Hall, an imposing shipbuilding complex at the heart of BAE’s Barrow branch.
“It comes down to the very real fact that what Corbyn stands for would just kill Barrow. It would kill it stone dead.”
The nuclear issue has already hurt Labour this year, as Labour activists in nearby Copeland know oh so well.
Fell’s Conservative colleague Trudy Harrison made history in February by becoming Copeland’s first Tory MP since the 1930s. Copeland is a short drive up the coast from Barrow and like its neighbouring Cumbrian town has a huge stake in the nuclear question. The Sellafield nuclear plant is the area’s main source of jobs and proved to be an awkward subject for Labour’s Copeland campaign. Activists faced tough questioning on doorsteps from locals who were hesitant to vote for a leader who in the past has called for Britain’s nuclear plants to be decommissioned.
But both Woodcock and Fell were keen to stress that issues other than Trident were on the line in Barrow.
“Already we have schools facing their first real terms cuts to their budgets in decades and headteachers are making decisions about laying off vital teaching staff. There’s huge pressure on the NHS that’s going to get worse in the next few years. I want to be fighting for that and that’s the case I am going to make on doorsteps over the next few weeks,” Woodcock told me.
“Ultimately, I am sure people don’t actually want to see a Conservative landslide and no opposition to what has been already a mediocre government under May. Strong Labour voices are what people in the north of England need.”
For Fell, addressing Barrow’s poor infrastructure — particularly the dire railway links connecting the Furness peninsula with the rest of the country — is something that previous MPs including Woodcock have neglected.
“What we are missing here more than anything is decent rail, roads and broadband. We have some world-beating industries here and some tremendously skilled people but we don’t have the infrastructure to support it. I don’t think we have a strong voice fighting for this issues in Westminster but also Cumbria doesn’t speak with a single voice and that’s a problem too. You have a range of MPs with all their different issues who aren’t pulling together and pointing out that it’s not just Barrow — it’s Copeland up the road, it’s Moorside, it’s Carlisle and Penrith.
“We can work together as a collective voice. It’s about saying the Northern Powerhouse is great but look at this chunk over here. We need an industrial strategy for Cumbria and I’ve had preliminary discussions with John Stevenson and Trudy Harrison about what that could look like if we all manage to get elected.”
Fell, who describes himself as being on the left of the Conservative party, was reluctant to talk up his chances of winning the seat. Tory activists told me that although the campaign was still in its early days the feedback had been encouraging.
A number of ex-Labour voters who refused to back the party under Ed Miliband in 2015, but couldn’t bring themselves to vote Tory, are now willing to make the switch, I was told.
The UKIP vote is set to drop, too, with sources close to Fell expecting the Conservative candidate to scoop up votes that last time went to Nigel Farage’s party.
It should come as no surprise then that some heavyweight Tories have been deployed to make the 600-mile round trip. Brexit Secretary David Davis paid a low-key visit last week and other cabinet ministers will likely be spotted wandering around Barrow in the weeks leading up to the June 8 vote. May really fancies her chances here.
The prime minister has been a big hit on Barrovian doorsteps, Fell insists.
“60% here voted Leave but almost everyone is uniting behind the idea that the decision has been made and now we need a strong leader to see it through.
“It’s almost as simple as Theresa May is a strong leader and she needs a strong mandate.”
Woodcock is not overly-confident about his own party’s chances, neither in Barrow nor nationwide.
But he refuses to entertain the idea that Labour MPs should stand aside in certain constituencies to help other parties defeat the Tories and vice versa — also known as the “progressive alliance” strategy.
“It’s not progressive and they don’t actually offer us any alliances. It’s a load of bollocks. Jesus.
“Apparently Caroline Lucas wants plaudits for not putting up a candidate in one seat in Brighton when actually she is fighting viciously against Labour just next door and scuppering Peter Kyle’s chances of holding the seat against a Tory candidate.
“The way to make sure that we have the strongest opposition possible is for candidates to say what they think and for us to put out what we stand for rather than confusing people with an alliance that in truth does not exist.”
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