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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle