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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Watch Ian Paisley Jr thank Martin McGuinness for partnership that "saved lives"

The son of Ian Paisley said he "humbly" thanked the man who was both his father's enemy, and then friend. 

Northern Irish politics started 2017 at a low point. The First Minister, the Democratic Unionist Arlene Foster, is embroiled in scandal - so much so that her deputy, Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness, resigned. Then McGuinness confirmed speculation that he was suffering from a serious illness, and would be resigning from frontline politics altogether. 

But as Ian Paisley Jr, the son of the Democratic Unionist founder Ian Paisley and a DUP politician himself, made clear, it is still possible to rise above the fray.

Paisley Sr, a firebrand Protestant preacher, opposed the Good Friday Agreement, but subsequently worked in partnership with his old nemesis, McGuinness, who himself was a former member of the IRA. Amazingly, they got on so well they were nicknamed "The Chuckle Brothers". When Paisley Sr died, McGuinness wrote that he had "lost a friend".

Speaking after McGuinness announced his retirement, Paisley Jr wished him good health, and then continued: 

"The second thing I'm going to say is thank you. I think it's important that we actually do reflect on the fact we would not be where we are in Northern Ireland in terms of having stability, peace and the opportunity to rebuild our country, if it hadn't been for the work he did put in, especially with my father at the beginning of this long journey.

"And I'm going to acknowledge the fact perhaps if we got back to some of that foundation work of building a proper relationship and recognising what partnership actually means, then we can get out of the mess we're currently in."

Questioned on whether other unionists "dont really get it", Paisley Jr retorted that it was time to move on: "Can we please get over that. Everyone out there has got over it. We as the political leaders have to demonstrate by our actions, by our words, and by our talk that we're over that."

He said he was thanking McGuinness "humbly" in recognition of "the remarkable journey" he had been on. The partnership government had "not only saved lives, but has made lives of countless people in Northern Ireland better", he said. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.