Neil O’Brien: There are still weeks to go, but for backbenchers like me, campaign 2019 feels much, much better than 2017
Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.
The Midlands sky was November grey, and there was the smell of a coal fire from somewhere. I was out delivering leaflets in a council estate in my constituency. Moments after popping one through the door of a bungalow, I heard a door being flung wide open behind me.
A large and angry man appeared. “You can have that back” he said, thrusting the leaflet into my hands. And with that, he swung back into the house and the door thumped shut.
I went on my way. But moments later, I heard the door swing open again. It was the big guy again, and I braced myself for a free and frank exchange of views.
But this time he was in a more sunny mood.
“Sorry. I thought you were Labour,” he said. “Are you the Conservatives? Can I have another one of those?” He told me he was going to vote for us.
It gave me a little taste of what it’s like to be a candidate today for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party.I don’t know what it is about life-long terrorist suck-up Jeremy Corbyn, or self-described Marxist John McDonnell, or police-hating Diane Abbott, or their two-faced approach on Brexit… but in many places where Labour might once have done well, they are now regarded with something approaching hatred.
There are still weeks to go till the election, but for backbenchers like me, campaign 2019 feels much, much better than 2017.
The ideas we are putting forward are more popular. The campaign feels better run, including on line. People massively prefer Boris Johnson to Corbyn. The question is whether it is enough.
As Daniel Finkelstein has pointed out, we have to win outright, while others can win even if they lose. Why? Because we will never team up with the SNP – while Labour are already dangling another separation referendum to cosy up with the nationalists. The Liberal Democrats can form a remain alliance with Labour – but not us. If we are going to win, it means pushing deeper into Labour territory in the north, midlands and south west, while holding off Lib Dems in the south east and the SNP up north.
The signs are encouraging. One set of constituency polls this week showed us holding seats in London, while another national poll showed us ahead among working class voters by a margin of nearly two-to-one (YouGov, 11-12 Nov).
For someone who got involved in politics when we were in the relegation zone in the mid 1990s, this is heady stuff.
We’ve already come a long way. Alasdair Rae at Sheffield has a neat chart which ranks constituencies in England from the most deprived on the left, to the most affluent on the right.
In 2001, we had no seats in the poorest 30 per cent, and Labour had most of the middle third. [See chart at top of article.] By 2017, the blue tide had already flowed into some areas Labour used to dominate. I hope this time it will surge further. [See chart at bottom of article.]
As we expand, the centre of gravity of Conservative voters has shifted and the Prime Minister has been the fastest to catch the mood. My leaflets this year feature our pledges of 20,000 more police, £450 million for our local hospital and funding for our local schools going up 4.6 per cent per pupil next year. Other than the fact that we also pledge tougher sentences for criminals, controlled immigration and securing our exit from the EU, much of this is the space New Labour used to occupy.
Rumours in the papers say that our tax policy is also going to be squarely focused on helping those working hard on low incomes. I think that would be the right approach.
It’s funny what pops into your head as we pound the pavements in the autumn rain.
For some reason I’ve been thinking about Philip Larkin’s poem, The Whitsun Weddings, describing his sun-drenched train journey from Hull in the north, down through the industrial Midlands to London:
“We ran /
Behind the backs of houses, crossed a street /
Of blinding windscreens, smelt the fish-dock; thence /
The river’s level drifting breadth began, /
Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet. /
All afternoon, through the tall heat that slept /
For miles inland, /
A slow and stopping curve southwards we kept. /
Wide farms went by, short-shadowed cattle, and
Canals with floatings of industrial froth…”
I feel like we as a party are taking the same journey, but in reverse, with the Conservative tide flowing up through the midlands and north.
Today the route from Hull, which goes via Doncaster, would take you past plenty of Labour marginals. Great Grimsby and Scunthorpe across the Humber. Don Valley and Rother Valley in South Yorkshire. Down through Bassetlaw, where sitting Labour MP and fierce Corbyn critic, John Mann has just stood down, then past Lincoln to the east, and down to London through Peterborough, where we hope to replace jailed Labour MP Fiona Onasanya.
I feel like we have a strong leader, good campaign, we stand for the right things, and people are sick of the delay and dither.
But will it be enough. Will our campaign work this time?
It might just.
Time to get back out there.
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