Meet 45-year-old Andy Botham. He is the train driver running against the Transport Secretary, Conservative MP Patrick McLoughlin in the upcoming general election. For 25 years he has been at the helm of carriages on the routes between Sheffield, London and Nottingham. But now the “proud socialist” is Labour’s parliamentary candidate for the Derbyshire Dales. I meet him standing outside Farringdon station vaping on his e-cigarette.
Naturally, we start talking trains. “When I started as a train driver for British Rail it was a totally different job,” says Botham. “It was in the public sector and there used to be a lot of social life around being a train driver; you used to see more of your colleagues than you do now. But then privatisation changed it all.”
As we sit down for coffee it’s not long before Botham announces, “I’m going to win in May 2015, there’s absolutely no doubt about it.” Words escape me. “I can see you smiling and thinking ‘yeah he’s not got a chance’. I’m a county councillor for Matlock and nobody ever thought that Matlock would have a Labour county councillor. It was known as the unwinnable seat.”
The reason I’m not convinced: Labour last won the seat in 1945 and lost it again five years later. McLoughlin has held the Derbyshire Dales under the Tory banner since 1986, when Matthew Parris stood down – albeit only by 100 votes in a by-election. But at the 2010 general election, McLoughlin took home a respectable 52 per cent of the vote in the constituency. He has a majority of 13,866. Labour trailed in distant third with 19 per cent, behind the Lib Dems. Botham has an extraordinary battle ahead of him in the next 110 days.
But Botham is defiant and confident he can swell the Labour ranks in the area by luring in disaffected Lib Dems. He speaks with passion and clenches his fists every time I mention the word “McLoughlin”. And he believes his working-class roots and upbringing will connect with the electorate in the Derbyshire Dales and give them something to vote for. “I’m not a professional politician,” says Botham. “Not someone who has come through the usual stagnant way into politics but someone who has actually worked and lived all their life in the seat and understands the mood of the constituency.”
Botham, the second eldest of five children, grew up on a council estate in Matlock and left secondary school without any qualifications. “We never had anything. And anything we did have we had to share. In our house it really was a race to the fridge in the morning to get your breakfast because once the milk had gone, it had gone,” he recalls. He credits his interest in politics to another train driver, Gordon Everest. “He started educating me in politics. I went from reading the Sun and the Star to the Guardian. I was introduced to a book called the Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, it was so relevant.” Since becoming a train driver more than two decades ago, Botham has been an active member of the train drivers’ union – ASLEF – where he has steadily moved up its ranks.
And he certainly has support from the socialist side of the Labour party. Dennis Skinner, the long-standing MP for Bolsover, visited Botham when he was standing for county council in Matlock. Skinner, firstly recalling the “glorious weather” of the day, said that he was quite taken aback by the support Botham received in the area. “A lot of people knew him; he wasn’t just a passing stranger.”
The working-class card will undoubtedly play in Botham’s favour. And it’s a card that Labour’s Hampstead socialists at the helm of the party need so badly: in 1979 almost 40 per cent of Labour MPs had done manual or clerical work. In 2010, it was less than one in ten. In the same year, 60 per cent of government ministers, 54 per cent of Conservative MPs and 40 per cent of the Lib Dem MPs had attended fee-paying schools – compared with 7 per cent of the population. But it’s also a card that Botham can’t rely on too dearly: McLoughlin, a former miner, is one of the few Tory MPs who had been a manual worker before entering parliament.
Botham isn’t alone in the race to unseat the cabinet minister: 22-year-old Ben Fearn, the Lib Dem candidate for the Derbyshire Dales, sounds confident he’s got what it takes to snatch the seat from McLoughlin. Speaking to the Derby Telegraph, Fearn said: “Make no bones about it, I know it’s tough, but when Patrick McLoughlin was first elected in 1986 he only got in with an 100 majority. I know that was some time ago but the support and potential is there, and I can’t see any reason why we can’t recreate a ‘Portillo moment’.”
Given the history of the constituency, it seems a bleak outcome for both Botham and Fearn in May 2015. But if Botham manages to relate to the disillusioned electorate in the pockets of deprivation he describes in the Derbyshire Dales, then he might see some success in four months’ time.