“Brexit is a right-wing coup and it is to be resisted”: the view from Chester

Only four years ago Labour Chester was Tory. Can a cabinet minister help it go blue again?

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When Matt Hancock returned to his hometown of Chester this week, some old memories came flooding back.

"I went to school with Mott Honcack," says Vicky Gildea, a purveyor of fine gins. "That's what I called him. He was just a bit of an arse. Very pretentious. A good tenor though – I'll give him that."

Hancock, however, was not back in town to reprise his Gilbert and Sullivan starring role. He was out on the campaign trail, visiting a local hospital.

"He's Secretary of State for Health so presumably he's entitled to visit the hospital," says Chris Matheson the incumbent Labour candidate. "But I've no doubt he got short thrift from health-workers. I've already been contacted by three, all of whom were fairly aghast he was there."

The City of Chester, with its majority of 9,176, is supposedly a safe Labour seat. But Matheson only took it from the Tories four years ago – by 93 votes. A bad night for Labour and the decision by central office to allocate resources elsewhere might backfire. Perhaps that is why Hancock arrived, phone in hand, to tweet about £4.2bn of Tory investment in trains, buses and tram services.

"Our last bus is at quarter to seven at night," says Anne Charlton, an acupuncturist who lives in the suburb of Newton. "If you want to go into town you've got nothing."

Charlton was ladling out mulled wine in a flashing Christmas jumper. It was a fundraising event for a community centre, and Matheson had loyally turned up to help switch on the lights. It was a good thing that he did.

"It doesn't sit well with me that my vote for Chris is putting Jeremy Corbyn in power," says Charlton, who wants to leave the EU. "We've got Chris who has worked tirelessly and then you've got that numpty at the top."

From the estates of Newton to the grand Victorian houses overlooking the River Dee, Matheson is well-known and well-liked, which insulates him to a degree. He has been outspoken on Brexit – he calls it "a disaster" and "a right-wing coup" – which in fact mostly helps in a city that voted 57 per cent to remain. Students wander around the colonnaded coffee shops of the Tudor centre, and there is much affection for Europe in a city which relies on tourism.

That said, the constituency extends well beyond Chester's handsome Roman walls. There is no exact data on the referendum result, but Cheshire West and Chester Council, which encompasses much of the constituency, voted narrowly to leave.

"The public voted, end of story," says Keith Russell, a 56-year old who used to lay paving stones. As he speaks, every ten seconds or so, he grabs his shoulder and his mouth locks in agony. He has been waiting to see a doctor for months. An accident took him out of work and he now lives on £300 a month of Universal Credit. (Samantha George, the Conservative candidate for Chester, declined to be interviewed for this piece.) 

"Everyone I know voted Brexit," says Russell. "They all would have voted Farage but he's pulled out."

In fact, the Brexit party is standing in Chester, but the consensus seems to be that Tory is the way to go if you want to see the withdrawal process continued. Russell lives in what was once the largest estate in Europe – a semi-detached suburb of Chester called Blacon. Here, there are a few Labour voters going blue. But most ignore politics altogether.

"There's this sense that people are seeing the effects of Tory austerity and blaming incumbent Labour candidates or a minority Labour councils," says Matheson. "Of course our hands have been tied by 10 years of Tory austerity."

Matheson, sitting in his campaign headquarters, sternly recounts the stories of constituents.

"I spoke to a woman this week. A single mum with two children. I met her at a food bank. She had £5 and two nappies to her name – the fiver coming from her cousin. She wasn't able to access the food bank because she had not had a referral. Universal Credit had not worked for her. She had illnesses which prevented her from working. Her registered carer was her 8-year old child. That is evidence to me of a system that simply does not work."

If you walk back into town from Blacon, you come across a much happier, more engaged electorate. The University of Chester has a student body of around 15,000. Undergraduates and postgraduates alike bedeck their rented properties with Matheson's signs. 

The decorations are testament to the tight campaign run by Labour's activists. Chester looks a good bet for Corbyn. But when challenged with the ominous polling that paints a bleaker picture across the country, Matheson grows angry.

"It's almost 15 years since we won a general election. I want to start winning elections again. I'm sick of losing. I'm sick of seeing women like the one I spoke to with her 8-year old daughter bearing the shitty end of the stick. We have to win this election."

Matheson maintains that, people on the doorsteps think the Labour leadership is principled, although concedes that some people have "read the Daily Mail too much". Down the line, Matheson reckons it might be nice to see more senior figures in the shadow cabinet representing constituencies from outside of London.

"Who knows? Maybe a leader from the Northwest would be a very good idea."

George Grylls is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2019.

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