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Life as Labour’s most pro-Jeremy Corbyn candidate in England’s most marginal constituency

How do the voters of Derby North, which the Tories hold by 41 votes, respond to a Corbynite message?

“Rise like lions after slumber, in unvanquishable number! Shake your chains to earth like dew, which in sleep had fallen on you. Ye are many – they are few!”

Chris Williamson is reciting Percy Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy to me in the front of his Renault Clio. “If only we could get people to realise that they are the many, and the bloody oligarchs are the few! Then we could have a society that really did work for everybody!”

You can see why he needs to psych himself up. The Labour candidate for the Midlands constituency of Derby North is boldly going where no man has gone before: he’s campaigning on a pro-Corbyn platform in a Tory-held marginal. And not just any marginal – Derby North is England’s most marginal seat, won by the Tories off Williamson by just 41 votes in 2015.


All photos: Umaar Kazmi

“I was not in a good way,” he says, recalling his white-knuckle defeat two years ago, as I join him canvassing on a cold and cloudy evening. “We were lulled into a false sense of security because the polls suggested we were going to win by a long way. I’m a Derby lad; you’re elected to represent your city, and then you lose – I was in the depths of despair.”

The former bricklayer was MP for Derby North in 2010-15, having served as a local councillor – and twice as council leader – for two decades. Now he’s back on the campaign trail, with renewed energy. “Jeremy’s candidature really invigorated me,” he grins.

The Labour leader visited this constituency recently, and Williamson describes a positive reception. “You do hear antipathy towards him but then there are people who genuinely have a sense of love for him. The more people get to see him, the more people respect him and see that the caricature that’s portrayed in the right-wing media is absolutely, totally [wrong].”

“I am a fan of Jeremy, and let me tell you why!”

Williamson thinks he lost last time because Labour’s platform wasn’t progressive enough, and the voters rejected “austerity-lite”. The Greens won 1,618 votes here, which he believes deprived him of victory. He urges the Green candidate to stand aside, something unlikely to happen given the Green party’s wish for local “progressive alliance” pacts has not been reciprocated by Labour or other parties.

“Look, I’m on the same page as the Green party on virtually every issue,” Williamson insists. “I’ve been a vegan for 41 years!”

Pounding the pavements of Abbey ward, a working-class area of neat, sloping terraces, you have to admire the vegan brickie’s dedication to his leader. In his flatcap and red scarf, he practically bounces along the narrow pavements – his enthusiasm rather against the odds, given Labour just lost control of Derbyshire County Council to the Conservatives in last week’s local elections.

“I’ve always voted Labour,” says one middle-aged woman with a bursting Sainsbury’s bag of shopping as she reaches her frontdoor at the same time as Williamson. “But not a fan of Corbyn I’m afraid…”

“Well. I AM a fan of Jeremy, and let me tell you why!” cries Williamson, not letting her finish, listing Labour’s policies like a mantra – as he has done valiantly at every doorstep. “£10 minimum wage, free school meals, get rid of tuition fees and zero-hour contracts! Renationalise the railways!”

The woman begins to shiver, so long has she stood out in the unseasonably chilly evening to hear Williamson’s stump speech. “I agree with a lot of his policies,” she concedes. “But I don’t believe he’ll win this election because he’s too quiet – he needs to stand up for us.”

“People have had enough of ‘I’m the great leader’ type politics,” counters Williamson. “He’s creating a movement!”

We move on.

“I’ve not made my mind up yet,” says a young man, who pokes his head round the door. “The working-class have got to stand together, mate,” Williamson implores. “To ensure it’s ordinary people who benefit from the wealth of the nation. An economy that works for working people!”

“Right,” the man says, looking slightly taken aback. He shakes his hand. “Cold hands, warm heart,” Williamson beams.

“How do we know he’ll do it? He hasn’t got the power”

A 71-year-old woman answers the door. She still has to go to work every day, and her husband works 12-hour shifts at the hospital and walks home because he can’t afford the bus fare. She has voted Labour all her life, but tells one of Williamson’s team of young canvassers that she won’t this time round.

“I just don’t know who to believe,” she tells him. “I’ve lost hope in anybody. You need to have more people like me running the country.”

After hearing about Corbyn’s policies, including his commitment to the state pension triple lock, she replies: “But how do we know he’ll do it? He hasn’t got the power.”

Corbyn’s policies are met with approval and incredulity in the same breath by many who answer the door. “Eighty grand? Whose arses are they kissing to earn that money?” asks a man with glasses perched on his head, who’s in the middle of cooking dinner for his wife. He is responding to Labour’s promise not to tax those earning below £80k.

“I’ve been working for 13 and a half years, and I’m lucky if I get eighteen. I’ve been voting Labour for years, but will it? Will it?” he asks, of whether voting for such a policy would put him in a better financial position.

“Labour has become very much a London party”

Williamson admits some of the policies have “not got through”, and says the “right-wing-dominated media” are partly to blame. Yet he also puts it down to “a bit of cynicism” among voters about whether politicians will actually deliver on their promises. “People hear these things and think, ‘is it just pie in the sky?’” he says. “I just hope we can cut through.”

Despite these concerns, he believes Corbyn should stay on as leader if Labour loses. “If there was a challenge, they'll lose,” he says. “I hope it doesn’t come, but if it comes, we’ll deal with that at the time... My very strong view is that he’s got to stop on, for sure.”

Derby North is mainly a suburban and residential constituency, encompassing stretches of terraces, council housing in Labour-voting areas such as Chaddesden and the Mackworth estate, and the smarter, more Tory territory of Mickleover and Littleover.

Near Labour’s office on Vernon Gate, there is a laundrette on the corner. It has lines of smart, white Georgian houses to one side, social housing and private student rented accommodation to the other, and rows of pubs opposite. I meet a 60-year-old woman inside reading the paper and waiting for her washing. She has lived in Derby North since 1984, where she rents and works three jobs as a gardener, carer and cleaner.

“If there was a leadership challenge, they'll lose”

She had voted Labour all her life, but went Green last time round. “The Labour party takes people like me for granted,” she says, over the whirring of the washing machines. “They’re very out of touch with the lives of ordinary people.”

Although she feels Jeremy Corbyn is “very sincere” and his “heart’s in the right place”, she believes “he finds it impossible to know what people’s lives are like – it’s a very different world. Labour has become very much a London party.”

Like 59.1 per cent of Derbyshire, she voted Leave in the EU referendum. “I’m not a racist, fascist, I’m not stupid,” she says. “I’m really upset by things said about us. They said we were poor, ignorant, old, racist. Well, I am poor, I’m not ignorant, I’m of working-age. You feel out on a limb. I have no party.”

She hopes the election of a Tory MP “gave the Labour party a shock” and that it will now “pull its socks up” – she will reluctantly be voting Labour in June, just to stop a Conservative win.

At the Brick and Tile pub opposite, Darren and Jenny Sims are having an early evening pint. They are equally concerned about a Tory representing their home. Darren, 48, is a theatre worker, and hopes that locals vote Labour – “even though Jeremy Corbyn might not be the best, it’s more to do with how the press have portrayed him; he’s a man of principle”.

His wife Jenny, 55, works as a cleaner at the Royal Derby hospital. She is concerned about further “cutting and shortages” in the NHS if a Tory wins here again. “Tories to me are for the upper class, Labour is for our own. But they just don’t seem to have the right leaders.”

Williamson will be relying on such voters come polling day, even if nationally the Labour party is not getting through to them. “People talk about Jeremy and myself, for that matter, [as] extreme left,” he says. “I don’t see it as a left and right issue, I see it as an issue of what’s right and wrong.” And off he bounds, in the hope of finding 42 people who will be convinced.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.