26 November 2019

Is this the Brexit election? That depends where you’re campaigning

By Resham Kotecha

As an experienced Conservative activist and candidate, I’ve spent the last 10 days speaking to voters and campaigners from Brighton to Birmingham and Hastings to Hexham to find out what it is that voters really care about, whether Brexit really is the defining issue of the Election, and whether campaign messages are cutting through outside of the Westminster bubble.

The most interesting of my campaigning experiences took place in Beaconsfield, where the Conservatives are fielding a new candidate – Joy Morrissey – against the former Attorney General and Conservative MP of 22 years, Dominic Grieve. For the first time in his life, Grieve is campaigning against his previous party in the hopes of stopping a ‘hard’ Brexit and is looking to overturn his own 24,543 majority from just two years ago.

History shows that it is extremely difficult for independents to win at general elections as they usually find it nigh-on impossible to compete with the money, manpower and name recognition of the major political parties. However, Grieve has already received more in donations than he can spend, the Lib Dems have stood down their candidate and rumours of a 500-strong team supporting Grieve have brought Conservative activists out in force.

For any new candidate, particularly those standing against well-known opponents, a snap General Election presents a real challenge. Five weeks to develop and run a campaign, to set out your stall and to appeal to voters – all with a smile on your face – does not leave much time for eating, sleeping, or seeing your own family. Joy certainly had a gruelling schedule, starting at a train station at 6.30am and hitting three different high streets over the course of the day before being present to see the turning on of the Christmas lights in the evening.

One moment that stuck out was when a group came over to us to question Joy and the campaigners about the party’s priorities. It emerged that they were former Conservative members and had left the party to support Grieve in his efforts. Then ensued a frustrating dispute over whether or not Grieve has been disloyal to both the Conservative party and been disloyal those who voted for him when he stood on a manifesto committed to leaving the EU back in 2017.

In Beaconsfield and the numerous other seats where an independent MP is standing against their former party, Brexit has crowded out other issues. In a number of these seats, the sitting MP is at odds with the majority of their constituents, and Brexit means there’s a distinct possibility that seats will end up with a Conservative MP for the first time in decades, or possibly ever. Indeed, if the so-called Red Wall of Labour seats does crack, we could see vast swathes of the Midlands and the North turn blue.

In these seats, with generally higher levels of Leave voters, the people I canvassed spoke of the need to “deliver Brexit” and of the “elite” in almost every conversation. They spoke fervently about being ignored and of the need to “respect democracy” by honouring the referendum result.

There were also clear signs of disillusionment with Jeremy Corbyn. Tory campaigners, are used to being shouted at by traditional Labour Party voters. This time though, they were having a go because they thought we might be from the Labour Party ourselves.

In other areas such as Milton Keynes South, Walsall North and Macclesfield , where voters feel more represented by the way their MP has voted on Brexit issues, it feels like there’s been a shift away from Brexit and towards crime, the NHS and housing. Voters feel they are being overwhelmed with spending pledges and election promises, with very little time to digest what each of the parties are telling them. At least a quarter of people I spoke to told me that they have yet to make up their minds and many people talk of “the best of a bad bunch” and ask why they should bother turning out to vote in yet another election.

This collapse of public faith has affected politicians of all stripes, with campaigners from all the major parties complaining about finding doors slammed in their faces the moment they mention the General Election. In constituencies where an MP has consistently voted in contrast to the Brexit vote of their constituents, this collapse of public trust has been exacerbated, with voters questioning the point of voting if they’ll “be ignored anyway”.

It is in these seats that Boris’ “Get Brexit Done” slogan appears to be having a real impact, with numerous voters repeating it without prompting.  Even the Labour Party’s unfounded claims about Boris wanting to “Sell the NHS” are not enough to counter the desire to deliver Brexit in these constituencies, although it does come up, and needs rebuttal, in areas where Brexit appears to be a less divisive issue.

The anger and frustration at “the political elite” was palpable in Broxtowe and in Stoke-on-Trent North, where voters attacked their MPs for “fighting the will of the people rather than delivering it”. Several voters I spoke to planned to vote tactically to dispense of Labour’s Ruth Smeeth in Stoke-on-Trent North, claiming it would “teach politicians a lesson”. Regardless of the outcome of this election, it has become quite apparent that politicians will have an uphill battle in the coming years to rebuild trust from voters.

Whatever the polls are saying now, it’s quite possible that this pivotal election, one that could define our country for a generation, will be won on the margins. MPs could hold, or lose their seats by only a handful of votes, and getting out the vote will be more important than ever.

This means, for candidates and campaigners around the country, despite the risk of frostbite, there will be no rest until polls close at 10pm on December 12th. For the candidates who win the election, the work to deliver Brexit, and then to win back people’s trust, will just be beginning.

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Resham Kotecha is Head of Engagement at Women2Win a former Conservative parliamentary candidate