Ashfield is one of those areas whose identity was shaped by an industry — coal mining — which no longer exists. Since the late 1960s, the local population has had to transition into new industries. Its towns are increasingly home to Nottingham commuters, and now combine elements of the urban and suburban with older pockets of wealth and deprivation.
I met Conservative candidate Helen Harrison in Sutton-in-Ashfield, which she described as a friendly town. As I took the bus on the way to meet her, strangers struck up conversation as the young driver, sporting a bleached mohawk, joked with the passengers: mostly elderly, or mothers with young children.
Politically, Ashfield has a fairly consistent record. It’s been Labour seat since 1955, with the one exception of a by-election in 1977 won by the Conservatives. In 2010, the Lib Dems surged, but failed to take the seat by just 192 votes. The Conservatives trailed Labour’s Gloria de Piero, shadow minister for Women, by 5541 votes. Harrison, though, thinks that the dynamics have since changed.
“I don’t think this is a two way fight at all. I think we’re right in there”
Her assertion that Ashfield is not a Labour-Liberal marginal reflects the sentiments of many third- and fourth- party candidates towards their seats. Some such statements are clearly wishful thinking; but a lot has changed in Ashfield since the last election. Labour will likely retain a significant vote-share. In the absence of local polling data, where the rest go is up in the air.
The Liberal Democrats were Labour’s strongest competition at the last election. This time round they stand weakened. With a national drop in support, and a local candidate change to Philip Smith at the 11th hour after the arrest of previous candidate Jason Zadrozny, it is unlikely that the party will achieve their 2010 heights of 16047 votes.
Harrison backs this view up, though makes clear that what she says is a snapshot, anecdotally based. “On the doorstep, I’m not finding the kind of support for the Lib Dems that I would expect to if this was a genuinely marginal seat.”
Yet, she acknowledges the Lib Dems’ strength as local campaigners, and has to actively address the tactical voting argument on the doorstep: that the Conservatives in Ashfield don’t have a chance, so the anti-Labour vote — which is certainly there, and has been for some time — is best given to the Lib Dems. Unsurprisingly, she has very little truck with that line of thought. “I don’t believe that at all. I think it’s up to the voters, it’s up to them to decide who they want.”
But the Liberal Democrats aren’t the Conservatives’ only contenders for a seat at the marginal table. UKIP look set to increase their share quite substantially. Despite winning only 933 votes in 2010, in the 2014 European elections they had an 8 point lead on the Conservatives across the East Midlands.Though European results are poor predictors of general elections, 2014 analysis by Dr Michael Goodwin, an expert on UKIP’s rise, puts the constituency third on a list of Labour seats facing serious threat a from the party.
This leaves the local Conservatives straddling what looks like a rather disparate pool of floating voters. In the worst case scenario for the party, the anti-immigration, small state vote goes to UKIP and the progressive, Lib-Dem sympathetic vote goes to Labour. In their best case, disillusioned Lib Dems choose Conservatives over Labour, and erstwhile Labour voters who want an EU referendum head their way too.
Harrison is manifestly conscious of the rise in UKIP support, and the issues — or issue — underlying it. In a constituency that’s 96% white British, she names immigration as the top concern for her constituents. “Even if they’re not personally experiencing problems with immigration themselves they’re very aware of public services struggling, schools struggling, the difficulties of integration when so many people are arriving in such a short period of time.”
She continues: “obviously very locally they’re feeling the impact of immigration on wages — wages are not rising particularly because there’s such a huge influx of people who are prepared to work for very low wages. That’s had a real impact locally, and it’s something we need to challenge.”
I ask whether she thinks there’s also a genuine concern that immigrants are scapegoated for issues that have little to do with them. There’s a discernible shift in emphasis:
“I think that’s definitely a problem: it’s obviously very easy to scapegoat the people who are coming here. Frankly I admire them. I admire their get up and go for thinking ‘right, I want to change my life and improve it’. I certainly wouldn’t want to stigmatise the people who come here, I think they’re just trying to do the best for themselves.”
This view might appease voters who have little sympathy with UKIP. Undoubtedly, it’s a difficult balancing act, which at times seems to equivocate between there being a problem with excess immigration, or a failure to cater to both immigrants and existing residents.
“There undoubtedly has been pressure on wages, but that’s not the fault of immigrants, that’s the fault of people who are using that as an excuse not to put wages up. And I think there is pressure on public services, but it’s up to the government — it’s up to us — to work out how to manage that.”
This kind of scrutinised discussion is quite new territory for Harrison, though you wouldn’t necessarily know it if she didn’t tell you first. She smoothly fields questions about topics as diverse as zero-hours contracts, coalition-making and the NHS. But this is her first time running for any elected office, and she joined the party just three years ago.
She tells me that it was precisely this fact — that she wasn’t a professional politician — that motivated her to become a candidate.
“I look at Westminster and I see some brilliant people: very clever, went from Oxbridge straight into central office. And I look at them, and I think yeah, you talk about the NHS, but you’ve not worked in the NHS. You talk about business but you’ve not run your own business. You talk about education but you’ve not had to go to a failing school.”
She draws parallels between politics and her current occupation — physiotherapy. “Every day I deal with people and I have to gain their trust. They’re often scared, they’re often in pain. And I do that by listening, and caring. And I feel that as an MP, as a politician, that’s exactly what we should be doing.”
“So I want to take my qualities, my experience, and my absolute normality to Westminster — because I don’t think there’s enough of it right now.”
Her ‘normality’ is something she utilises when speaking to constituents. We met one resident considering not voting at all, disillusioned by perceived corruption among politicians exemplified by the expenses scandal. Harrison reassures her that many local candidates, herself included, are just ordinary people: “I work in the NHS, my husband is a builder”.
Local candidates aren’t the target here, though. “I don’t have a problem with the normal MPs — it’s the rest of them, the bigwigs”, the resident tells her over the front gate. “Every time you turn on the news or look in the paper, there’s something new [referring to scandals]”.
This isn’t a new complaint. Before we took to the doorsteps, Harrison told me about disillusionment in the constituency, and what it’s like to be on the receiving end.
“It’s sometimes quite hard and hurtful when you’re on the doorstep, and you know that you’ve lived a good life, you’re just out there trying to help, and people say ‘Oh you lot, you’re just a bunch of useless money grubbing etc etc’. You just think, ‘hang on a minute, we’re not, I’m not, I really want to do this for the right reasons’. Most MPs that I’ve ever met want to do it for the right reasons, and work incredibly hard.”
I asked Harrison how she thinks mainstream politics can get back into the voters’ good books here in Ashfield: one of the perennial problems of politics, but a particularly salient one in 2015.
“There’s only one way isn’t there, and that’s to do what you say you’re going to do, listen to the people, and represent people properly and considerately. It’s about listening, and acting. I can’t see any other way of restoring it but by good example.” She pauses. “And putting an end to these scandals that keep occurring. It’s so depressing.”