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10 May 2017updated 01 Aug 2021 7:52am

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?

By Anoosh Chakelian

“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.”

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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.

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This article appears in the 17 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies