Report from Eastleigh: Apathy is the watchword of the doorstep

Rowenna Davis says she's never canvassed anywhere so undecided.

Jim’s face sours as he opens the door. A former lorry driver, his home is now lined with impeccable double glazing, and a proud “Number 47” plaque hangs on his porch. The small lawn outside is neat; the car in the drive is comfortable. This is his castle, but with the pensions squeeze and rising bills, he’s being forced to consider selling up.

“My wife says she won’t move, but every month we chip away at what little savings we have. We worked hard our whole lives for this, and now we’re being punished for it. My neighbour doesn’t have this problem. It’s always the honest people in the middle.”

Jim lives in Fair Oak, a Tory stronghold in Eastleigh where activists have already spent hours campaigning. With its hanging baskets freezing in the February air over neat brick houses, it’s the beating heart of middle England, and a key battleground for the by election. It’s true not even Tony Blair won Eastleigh, but without winning over people like Jim, “One Nation” is just a sound bite. Labour needs southern voters. Knocking on hundreds of doors provides a good opportunity for us to listen.

The people I met were highly aspirational, but anxious about the future. People who had worked their way up were now haunted by what feels like an inevitable pull of decline. People like Nigel, who opened the door telling me how hard he had worked to get his two sons to university, only to find one laden with debt and out of work, whilst the other was facing redundancy from army cuts. “You work hard and you get nothing for it,” he said, with an apathetic smile, “You show me one party that offers anything different.”

But it’s not just materialism that moves people. It’s also compassion. Too many people might be getting benefits in their eyes, but too few are getting the public services that they deserve, be it for young children or ageing parents. One man answered the door in a slightly less affluent part of town in a frayed V-neck sweater. He owned his own home, and his 95-year-old mum was dying next door. After working his whole life, he said he wasn’t getting the support he needed to care for her. He had tears in his eyes as he spoke to a fellow campaigner. “He was desperate,” said the activist, “But he didn’t know who to vote for.”

Apathy is the watchword of the doorstep. Never have I canvassed anywhere so undecided. For all the neat Welcome mats on doorsteps, canvassers of all colours are treated with suspicion. The high UKIP presence is symptomatic of that deep disillusionment with mainstream politics. Anyone who thinks the south is a stronghold for any party is mistaken. The Tories might be leading in the polls, but their support is brittle. For Labour, this means that there is everything to play for.

Underlying almost all of my conversations, there was a sense that a contract had been broken. The deal that says if you work hard, it will pay off. Jim, Nigel and others felt that they had “done their time” and “played by the rules”, but the simple rewards they had been promised – a decent job, a stable home and a little support when things go wrong - were slipping away. With living costs 20 per cent higher in the south, families here are particularly anxious about the news from Mervyn King yesterday that we’re going to feel even poorer for the next two years. Ed Miliband is right to raise it, as is Jon Cruddas in his lecture today.

Of course there are the more thorny issues for Labour too. Immigration. Europe. Welfare. They all come up on the doorstep. But as John Denham, MP for the neighbouring Itchen constituency points out, once you get over the myth of the stereotypical “southern voter”, you can be surprised by the subtleties of people’s attitudes, even on immigration.

The story of one retired railway worker and former UKIP voter surprised me this week. This man owned his own home and said he was seriously concerned about immigration. But it wasn’t that simple. He praised the Indians who invested in Jaguar, and said it was wrong to keep out people who were contributing. A blanket reduction of numbers pursued by the Tories was, in his view, irrational. He was happy with people coming, as long as he knew they made a contribution. Now he didn’t know who to vote for.

Back at the Labour HQ on Leigh Road, campaigners are starting to sense this space for them to win voters round. Irrespective of whether Labour wins this month, their effort, if sustained, could mean a lot for 2015 - particularly if John O'Farrell commits to staying on. Voters need to know that Labour listened, responded, and came back again when the cameras disappeared. If we do that, people like Jim might open the door with a different expression.

John O'Farrell and Harriet Harman on the campaign trail in Eastleigh. Photograph: Getty Images

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.