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

Getty
Show Hide image

In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser