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11 December 2019

In Keighley, local issues are uniting a divided constituency

If Yorkshire is a divided county, Keighley and Ilkley – two towns just eleven miles apart from each other – make up its most divided constituency.   

By Eleanor Peake

A black fog carries over Keighley’s Victorian train station. The small Yorkshire town is proud of this building; its period features have been preserved for 150 years. Film crews often come to the station to film tourist steam trains as they travel away into the hills that swallow the town. The train goes out every weekend and a sooty cloud trails behind, one of the few remaining ghosts of Keighley’s manufacturing history.

Yorkshire, the UK’s biggest county with a population of over 5 million, is also one of the UK’s most divided. The moors of the Dales are home to some of the safest Conservative seats in the North, in contrast with the Labour heartlands of the county’s south-west. On the edge of these battle lines is the small town of Keighley.

Since 1959 Keighley has been a bellwether seat with only two exceptions: 1979 and, more recently, 2017, when Labour’s John Grogan won back the seat from the Conservatives’ Kris Hopkins by just 249 votes. This makes this small patch of West Yorkshire one of the most marginal seats in the country.

But the constituency is also full of contradictions, made up of two mainly rural areas whose interests rarely converge. Despite its tranquil setting, poverty and substance abuse are growing problems in Keighley, with foodbank usage at record highs. Just a 20-minute car journey over the moors from Keighley is the market town of Ilkley, sitting quietly on the edge of the Dales. Despite only being 11 miles away from each other, these towns are worlds apart. Ilkley is affluent, home to retired nature-lovers, grammar schools and a Betty’s tearoom. Locals worry about climate change and keeping crime rates low.

In this election, however, these two areas find themselves slightly more united than before. Like the vast majority of Yorkshire, on the night of 23 June 2016, this constituency voted to leave the EU. But this time around, this national vote seems to be increasingly eclipsed by local issues. “I would like to get Brexit out of the way obviously but if I’m honest,” says the owner of Keighley’s The Flower Shop, “I have a daughter that hasn’t been very well so we have been in and out of Airedale. The NHS is more important to me right now.”

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Protecting the National Health Service is a concern across the country but in this constituency, the Airedale hospital is one of the few unifying issues; the 1970s build sits between the two contrasting towns.

“Airedale hospital is 50 years old next year. The wards are basically not up to scratch. The hospital asked for £22mn to renew all the wards and they’ve been turned down,” says John Grogan, the Labour MP for Keighley and Ilkley, when I met him at his campaign office in the town centre. “That’s an immediate issue. Basically, if they don’t get the money in the next two or three years, the Airedale might not see its 60th anniversary.”

In Keighley, on a drizzly morning in late November, residents were keen to talk. After I had met Grogan in his office, his manifesto leaflet peeked from my pocket. Because of this, a middle-aged woman approached me in the street with enthusiasm, asking if I was campaigning for Labour.

Apathy was not something I felt in this swing town. Instead, frankness and anger were ubiquitous. “Boris is a dick”, said one local when I asked their mood towards the forthcoming election.

A few years ago, a 1960s eight-storey building took up much of Keighley’s landscape. This summer, work began to demolish the old college building. Now, in its place sits a broad green field. Plans are underway to build a new police station in its place.

But, in the meantime, the fight is on to keep Keighley’s well-known library from closing down due to local government cuts. Founded in 1902, the Carnegie library is a much-loved pillar of the community. But in September, news came that it was under threat.

“The biggest issue in the town at the moment is the council have no money and are subsequently reviewing library provisions,” says Grogan. “There was a passionate meeting about a month ago of about 200 people. I have had more post and emails about the library than I did about Brexit.”

In this constituency, it is in Keighley where the effects of austerity are felt most acutely. In a similar trend seen across the country, the town’s foodbank has seen its busiest December on record, providing food for 577. “We have completely different interests to Ilkley, with their big houses and leafy suburbs,” says Keighley resident and charity-worker Ayesha Bhatti. “I know because I’ve got friends from there.” For Bhatti, she doesn’t believe the current Tory government have done enough to combat the issues the town is facing: “The rise in food parcels is just one example.”

In contrast, green issues persist in Ilkley. Last summer, the famous moors set alight in an arson attack, raising questions about the preservation of Yorkshires wildlife. “Brexit won’t affect how I vote in this election. Similar problems will happen no matter who is in charge,” says Lucy Kaupe, a dance teacher and Ilkley resident. For Kaupe, keeping crime rates low in the town as well as protecting the NHS are her biggest concerns. “I care most about environmental initiatives and Europe,” says Fred Harman, 23, who was brought up in Ilkley. In this year’s May parish council elections, Green won 25 per cent of the vote, second behind the Conservative’s 36 per cent.

However, in this general election, no Green candidate will stand, which Grogan hopes will be a boost for Labour. As election day dawns, Grogan tells me he is no closer to knowing whether he will have a job on 13 December. “I often look at my colleagues in safe seats and wonder what that must be like,” says Grogan. “But Keighley is a very proud place,” he says. “It is England in a town.”

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