In the otherwise yellow and blue wash of Devon and Cornwall, the city of Plymouth is one of the few places that has often returned Labour MPs. Even in Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide, the only Labour MPs outside Plymouth were returned by Exeter and Falmouth & Camborne – on which the current seat of Camborne & Redruth is partially based.
Labour HQ will surely have high hopes for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport, where Luke Pollard is the challenger to Conservative Oliver Colville (MP in the last Parliament). And Lord Ashcroft’s polling last summer suggested that such hopes would not well placed: at that point Labour had a 13% lead over the Conservatives and an 18% lead over UKIP – the Greens and the Liberal Democrats also seemed to pose no challenge.
Not that everyone in Labour has great expectations for a Pollard victory. When we chatted to him last August, he mentioned a “London-centric-bubble-after-a-few-beers type comment” he’d received: “I was at LGBT Labour drinks in London a couple of years ago and people were saying, ‘Why are you in the South West? We literally can’t win there.’… But, well, I’m there because it’s my home, and because we can win there.”
The Conservative Party has equally been putting significant energy into this seat. The foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, recently paid a visit and used the opportunity to visit the dockyards, describing the renewal of Trident as a “red line” for any future Conservative government. ““Conservatives will be the government most committed to defence. We have committed to [Devonport] dockyard and we have committed to Trident,” he said, according to the Plymouth Herald.
RoadTrip2015, the Conservatives’ youth campaign, also visited recently. Which, of course, meant for plenty of photo opps:
— Roadtrip2015 (@RoadTrip2015) 3 May 2015
But what is the mood among voters like? On the penultimate day of our roadtrip we attended a hustings that had been organised by Plymouth University Student Union. Here, if anywhere in Plymouth, the mood should have been very favourable to Pollard – but also to Libby Brown, who is not only the Green candidate, which enjoys strong support among young people, but also a student at the university.
And, indeed, Pollard came across as the obvious rival to Colville. Graham Reed, the Liberal Democrat candidate at points seemed confused, explaining why not to vote tactically, for instance, by referring to an election in Scotland where he voted tactically and it worked.
Robin Julian, UKIP’s Parliamentary candidate for the neighbouring constituency of South West Devon, was hardly likely to pose much competition, given the make-up of the audience. Appearing, further, to misjudge his listeners, he said in reference to the burden of debt incurred while at university, “You’ve got all this debt and some of you probably aren’t even married” – cue much laughter.
Libby Brown, meanwhile, came across as sincere and enthusiastic, but perhaps not a significant player. In an audience of students, clearly it was the Green Party that Labour was most in danger of losing votes to – and, in fact, when we spoke to students afterwards, this was what had happened (see our video at the end of this article). Pollard, however, thought his position sufficiently secure that in his closing remarks he wished her well, “Realistically it’s me or the blue seat; though I hope Libby does well – she’s got a fine future ahead of her.”
Colvile, disadvantaged by both having a record to defend and by facing an audience who would were unlikely to include many of his supporters, nonetheless put up a good fight. His opening remarks complimented the audience: “Thank you for inviting me and for doing your degrees here, not in Manchester or Birmingham.” And he gave measured responses to two questions that were nakedly critical of his record and opinions: ‘Is a twenty-week unborn baby a human being?’ and ‘Would you vote against your party on the advice of your constituents?’ “I think the 1967 abortion act needs to be reviewed,” he said, also pointing to the possible mental health implications that can be the result of undergoing an abortion operation. “I’ve always voted with the government,” he admitted, “but I’ve always worked to get the government on the side of Plymouth.”
Other questions that were fielded during the evening included how to make sure middle-income earners keep more of their money; whether to reduce tuition fees and, if so, how to fund that; and, given the rise of smaller parties, what plans there were for electoral reform.
On the issue of middle-income earners, Colvile focused on employment and home-owning. “We need to make sure there are plenty of employment opportunities… We need to make it much easier for people to buy their own homes.”
Reed talked about his own experiences of being self-employed: “In twenty-years of being self-employed, the tax codings have grown extraordinarily – I’d like to bring in a private member’s bill to cancel two laws for every one created. The system is getting clogged.”
Pollard dwelt on housing, energy and childcare costs. “We need to build more genuinely affordable housing to rent… In this constituency 40% privately rent, and that’ll be 50% by 2020.”
“We want to protect everyone,” Brown said. “We want to increase the minimum wage. Rents need to be capped. Childcare should be free.”
“Big corporations need to be closely monitored and they should pay fair tax,” said Julian. “Zero-hours contracts need to be scrapped – no way can you survive like that. And to have food-banks in this day and age, anyone would think the war had just finished.”
On tuition fees, Julian suggested tuition fees should be scrapped, but also that there should be more room in the system for people to work and study: “in my days you’d do so many days working, and so many days studying, that’s how you got your skills.”
Reed urged caution about cutting tuition fees. “My son runs his own business in Cornwall and he pointed out to me he’ll never have to pay back his fees… Labour’s policy will just benefit the well-off.”
Brown said the Greens will scrap tuition fees. “Even if you never pay it back, it’s still at the back of your mind.” Reducing tax avoidance would be a way of paying for this, she said.
“No,” said Colvile. “The important thing is for the underprivileged to be able to come to university.” Referring to various problems that have beset Plymouth University over the past year, which saw the vice-chancellor suspended, Colvile continued, “But we do have to much more transparency in how fees are spent. I recently introduced a private member’s bill for vice-chancellors to write to their students and hold a general meeting to explain how their fees are being spent.”
“The current funding system is a mess,” said Luke Pollard. “The majority of debt simply won’t be paid back.” He then directly challenged Colvile on a point of (lack of) detail in Conservative policy announcements: “The Conservative manifesto is very vague on whether tuition fees will be raised, will Mr Colvile vote to increase them?”
After some argy-bargy, Colvile replied, “[raising fees] is not an option that’s currently being considered.”
On electoral reform, Brown was enthusiastic. “Absolutely we need electoral reform. You’re not happy with the major parties – on that note, don’t vote tactically on May 7th.”
Colvile was less keen on electoral reform, pointing to the almost-unanimous no vote in the 2011 referendum on AV. “But it’s a good thing [that the smaller parties push for certain changes].”
“We need the smaller parties, especially UKIP,” said Julian. “Do we really want change? Then vote UKIP.”
Pollard drew attention to Labour’s plans for reforming the House of Lords. “A fairer voting system will be part of that… I hope that you come out and use your vote positively.”
“I hope you’ve heard a more consensual approach to politics tonight,” said Reed. “Over the last thirty years we’ve had only five years of coalition, but a consensual system makes for a successful democratic country… We should be more like Scandanavia.”
As in several of 50for15’s constituencies, such as Birmingham Edgbaston, Edinburgh South, and Hendon, the student vote will be crucial in Plymouth Sutton and Devonport. A report in 2013 suggested the city was moving from ‘dockyard town’ to ‘university city’ status; and the university can boast of having the ninth largest population in the UK. So what did the students actually think? (Click on the video to find out, obviously…)