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View from Halifax: can a Labour MP survive her leader's unpopularity?

Holly Lynch faces the strong possibility of becoming an ex-MP at the age of just 30.

Holly Lynch is about to knock on her first door of the morning, but she is reluctant to pin on her Labour rosette. It is a little... Crufts, I suggest. “Exactly,” she replies. “A bit cheese on toast.”

Then again, Labour needs all the promotion it can get in Halifax. The party won the seat by 428 votes in 2015, and two years later Lynch faces the strong possibility of becoming its ex-MP at the age of just 30.

That knowledge has left an air of grim determination hanging over the canvassing team outside Withinfields Primary School, high on a hill overlooking Halifax town centre: the evocative landscape captured in the BBC crime drama Happy Valley. Earlier, when I asked Lynch what comes up on the doorstep, she listed a series of local concerns – policing, education and the reconfiguration of the local hospital trust – plus Brexit, though “it’s not the be-all and end-all in the way Theresa May is trying to frame it . . . Of course, in some areas our leader is coming up. You’ll probably hear that today.”

Lynch was not wrong. “Number 5 wants to oust Jeremy Corbyn,” one of her volunteers pipes up when we regroup during the door-knocking session. “Number 3 had the same issue,” offers another.

An older man tells us he has just resigned from Unite after 30 years in protest at how Len McCluskey (“idiot”) is propping up the Labour leader. “Corbyn’s more a dictator,” the man adds. “He’s a Trotskyite.” And so Lynch, like dozens of other Labour candidates in this strange election, sets about convincing him to vote for her anyway.

“We’re going to need good MPs to rebuild the team,” she says.

“But is there any guarantee he’s going to go? Look at what happened last time,” the man says, referring to the parliamentary party’s unsuccessful coup attempt in 2016.

Lynch sighs. She is slight, and, with her bright red hair, she looks younger than her years, but she also exudes a quiet, earnest toughness. “People do keep saying to me: ‘It’s not you, it’s Jeremy.’ But as someone said to me, ‘Even if you don’t support the manager, you support the team.’”

After running the man through the alternatives – “Ukip are a one-issue party, the Conservatives don’t have anything to say in places like this” – she eventually wrings a concession from him that he’ll keep thinking. The conversation ends on a downbeat note. “I hope you stay as our MP, but you’re probably going to lose by default.”

That is exactly how some of the campaign volunteers see it, too. There is little sign of an active campaign for the Conservative candidate, a young councillor in the next-door Calder Valley called Chris Pearson. He is a “cleanskin”, with few statements on the public record, and he did not respond to my request for an interview. (He also cancelled on the Observer.) I do get a glimpse of him, though: sitting in the front row as Theresa May came to Halifax to launch the Conservative Party manifesto on 17 May at Dean Clough Mills. He looks fresh-faced and unobjectionable; his Twitter avatar shows him shaking hands with the Prime Minister like the winner of a sixth-form essay prize. “I think they’ve matched me in age, probably quite tactically,” Lynch notes.

Between them, these two snapshots – the disillusioned former Unite member on the doorstep, along with Pearson’s acquiescence to campaign merely as May’s representative on Earth – tell the story of this election. The Conservatives are running a national campaign, relegating individual candidates to the shadow of their popular leader. The Labour activists are running 650 local campaigns, trying to mitigate the unpopularity of theirs. (That said, not everyone in Halifax finds Corbyn a turn-off; Lynch says the Kashmiri community is much more supportive of the Labour leader because of his principled stance on foreign policy.)

The focus on May also makes sense when you speak to voters here and see the stubborn toxicity of the Tory brand. Several voters raise fox-hunting unprompted, one man in a Grand Canyon T-shirt telling Lynch: “They say Labour don’t speak for t’working class – but who do they speak for?”

However, the rise and fall of Ukip has changed some old loyalties in a constituency where 60.8 per cent voted to leave the European Union. In early May, YouGov’s regional polling breakdowns showed that since the 2015 election the Conservatives had gained in popularity by 10 points in Yorkshire and the Humber (up to 43 per cent), but Labour had fallen by only 1 (to 38). At the same time, Ukip fell by 9 points. The conclusion seems to be that switching directly from red to blue is still tough for some, unless they go via purple.

Yet it wouldn’t be right to describe Halifax as a haven of the “left behind” – the older, less educated demographic that found Ukip and Brexit appealing. True, the town centre is quiet when I arrive at 6.30pm, but the next day I visit a bustling indoor market selling meat, nighties and novelty lamps and walk past (sadly) a pub rejoicing in the splendid name Bow Legged With Brass. The area’s wild hills have attracted television companies to film here, and there is a Nestlé factory next to the station proclaiming Halifax to be the home of Quality Street.

Several local Victorian mills have been turned into office space, including the one where Theresa May launched the manifesto and another, now called the Elsie Whiteley Innovation Centre, where Lynch has her office. In the afternoon, in one of its grand, brick-lined rooms, I watch her present certificates to a group of residents who have helped Halifax become a Fairtrade Town. One of her staff dresses as a banana for the photo. This is not some clichéd Brexitland.

However, there is dissatisfaction here, particularly with public services. From 2014 onwards the local hospital, Calderdale, faced having its accident and emergency department downgraded, but it now looks as though Huddersfield next door will get the chop instead.

Halifax is a commuter town for Leeds and Manchester, so the electrification of railway lines is a frequent topic in the Halifax Courier, as is commuter crush and rail capacity. In the first week of May the Conservatives sent up the Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, to have his photograph taken with the Tory candidate. That must have cheered you up, I tell Lynch: if there’s an opposite of a Midas touch, Grayling has it. “There was a lot of chatter about a Tory A-lister, and then we saw it was Chris Grayling,” she says. “I will confess we were quite relieved.”

Lynch has the advantage that she grew up in the area, working in a sandwich shop in the city centre during her teens, before studying politics and then working for a local export business. More proof of her quiet toughness: she tells me that in 2015 Len McCluskey quite fancied the seat for his close personal friend Karie Murphy - now Jeremy Corbyn’s gatekeeper -, but she prevailed. (Unite denies this claim*.)

Lynch, whose father was in the police force and mother was a nurse, often shadows front-line workers on night shifts to see where the strains are. Ellis King, the manager of Halifax Street Angels – a charity that provides patrols in the town centre to help the drunk, distressed or otherwise vulnerable – hosted her last August. He says he was impressed that she mucked in, unlike previous visitors who “often turn up with a small team and ask questions before taking a few pictures and leaving”.

In parliament, Lynch has pushed an initiative, called Protect the Protectors, to impose tough punishments on those who assault front-line staff. “We’ve lost 1,200 police officers across West Yorkshire,” she says. “You really feel that in the casework . . . antisocial behaviour, an increase in drugs, dangerous driving.” The cutbacks have obliged more officers to patrol alone; Lynch witnessed the consequences when a policeman she was shadowing pulled over a car he suspected of containing drugs on the Furness Estate in the north of the town.

“Suddenly he found himself surrounded by a bit of an angry mob. He locked me in the police car for my own safety, had to draw his baton – looked as if he was going to get his head kicked in for a minute. I ended up ringing 999 from the police car to call for back-up.” Luckily, the crowd melted away once the car’s passenger had escaped.

I ask Lynch what she will do if, as all the evidence suggests, she becomes an ex-MP at the age of 30. “I might retrain and go into one of the emergency services,” she says quietly. “I just do enjoy – while it’s tough – the sense of making a difference.” Somehow, those well-worn words don’t sound – not even a bit – cheese on toast.

You can find the rest of our consituency profiles from the 2017 general election here.

* Editor's note, 19 June 2017: Unite contests Lynch's claim that Len McCluskey was interested in the seat selection. In a statement, a spokesperson said: "Unite the union rejects Ms Lynch's claim. The selection for the Halifax seat was a matter for the constituency and the previous MP.  It had nothing whatsoever to do with Unite or its general secretary and it is wrong to suggest otherwise."

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 01 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Labour reckoning

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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”