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On the road in Ashfield, the UK's most gambled-on constituency

In the Nottinghamshire coalfield, the most successful independent politician in the country threatens the Tory advance on Labour's heartlands.

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If Lee Anderson did not exist then Boris Johnson would want to invent him. The Conservative candidate for Ashfield, an assortment of pit towns and villages deep in the Nottinghamshire coalfield, started his working life as a miner, as so many men here once did. Like 70 per cent of voters here, he backed Leave in 2016. At the last election, as at every other in his life, Anderson voted Labour. More than that: he helped run its narrowly successful campaign. 

In 2017, Gloria De Piero, whose constituency office Anderson once managed, beat the Tories – whose vote nearly doubled – by just 441 votes. It is hardly a rarity for MPs to be succeeded by their staff, but Anderson might be the first to do so under the banner of its fiercest rival. Here, eating scampi and chips in the Badger Box, an unprepossessing chain pub on the A611 from Hucknall to Mansfield, another Labour redoubt turned blue, is the Conservative electoral strategy made flesh. If Johnson is to win his majority, Dominic Cummings believes it will be because of men like Anderson, who is 52 and speaks with the sort of thick East Midlands accent one would expect to hear in a Shane Meadows film. 

Anderson, who says Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn drove him to quit the Labour Party, is used to political heresy. Twelve years a miner, he was a member of Arthur Scargill’s National Union of Mineworkers, rather than the strikebreaking Union of Democratic Mineworkers, who ruled the Nottingham pits. Just before he quit for the Conservatives, he was suspended from Labour's group on Mansfield council after dumping two boulders at the entrance to a local park to deter travellers. He believes his candidacy will help deliver the Tories victory in Ashfield for only the second time in the seat’s history – the first, a narrow and unexpected by-election win in 1977, came in the dog days of the Callaghan government and has never been repeated. 

“All throughout my time in the Labour Party, every meeting I went to, I always had my rant,” Anderson says. “They always used to say: ‘Why don’t you go and join the Tory party?’ This went on for years. And then I did.” He believes that Ashfield is ready to do the same.

“The Tory party’s picked me for a reason: I’m an ex-miner in a mining town,” he continues, wielding his fork like a pickaxe. “I campaigned to Leave. They know my history. It’s easier for somebody to vote for me if they see me as one of them. It probably makes it acceptable to vote Tory if it’s an ex-pitman – rather than some posh Tory boy.” 

Anderson certainly lacks the telegenic polish of some of the plummier Tory candidates parachuted into constituencies like Ashfield direct from CCHQ. You might call him one of this election’s viral stars. In one video posted on his Facebook page, he suggested that nuisance tenants should be evicted from social housing and made to live in tents (one local Labour activist whispers that they are reluctant to share the video, as some on the doorstep agree with the sentiment). He is currently the subject of an internal party investigation over a Facebook group, Ashfield Backs Boris, in which members posted lurid conspiracy theories about George Soros, the Jewish Hungarian philanthropist. But, if Anderson’s name rings a bell, it is most likely that you noticed his being caught staging an apparently spontaneous doorstep conversation with a supportive constituent by the broadcaster Michael Crick. Still, the backstory is good.

The irony of his brush with Crick was that Anderson does not believe he wants for support. Leavers, he insists, “feel betrayed” by Labour, who he predicts will struggle without De Piero in an election defined by two questions: Brexit, and the identity of the next prime minister. “Boris, in a place like this, ticks both boxes,” Anderson says. “He makes mistakes. He doesn’t always do the right thing. He’s charming. He’s funny. He’s witty. People just warm to him, and he sometimes seems a victim as well. In the past nine or ten weeks since he became leader, everyone’s been out to get him. You lot, the BBC - you’ve learned nothing from Trump and Farage.” 

All that remains of Anderson’s lunch now is a smear of mushy peas, and off he heads into the driving rain to resume the fight. “There’s a lot of politically homeless people here,” he says before we part. “They think: ‘Who’s speaking out for me?’” Anyone but Labour, Anderson says – entirely unsurprisingly. In a constituency that is in his view blighted by welfare dependency, “it’s an aspirational thing. The Labour Party should be an aspirational party. The Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn has nothing in common with the good people of Ashfield – at all.”

***

It is funny that Anderson should say so. I had bumped into him after a morning on the canvass with Natalie Fleet, his likeable Labour rival. Anderson makes much of his local bona fides. “I’m from here, an ex-miner, working-class, has raised a family here. We can’t be accused of parachuting somebody in, like Labour always have done,” he says, drawing an implicit contrast not only with De Piero, who returned to her home constituency after a career in television, but the Labour grandees for whom this seat was once the comfiest of berths: Geoff Hoon, a mainstay of New Labour’s cabinets, and David Marquand, a Jenkinsite intellectual who later joined the SDP (and whose resignation triggered that first Tory victory in 1977). 

But Fleet, Anderson concedes, is an “Ashfield person” – a label the 35-year-old, born in the year the strike ripped mining communities apart, embraces. An official at the National Education Union, she was selected little more than a week before the election was called and has had to hit the ground running. After an hour on the doors in the village of Annesley – where the reception is mixed but far from hostile – we retreat to the Badger Box. Noticing Fleet’s rosette, Reece, a twenty-something barman whiling away a quiet weekday morning shift, says he does not know who he’ll vote for. Usually, he says, he defers to his mum. “Tell her you met me!” Fleet jokes. In previous elections, that might have been enough. But party loyalty is much harder to come by in Ashfield now.

“They’re trying to make this a Brexit election,” Fleet sighs as she waits for a bacon sandwich. “Actually, this is about who’s in government for the next five years.” Hers is the sort of New Labour success story that Blairites love. At 16, while still at school, she became pregnant. By 19, she had two children and a Labour Party membership card. Social mobility means her own 19-year-old daughter has settled for a pet tortoise. (When one voter suggested Fleet might have “kept her legs shut” as a teenager, she told him to fuck off.)

Without the SureStart centre on her estate, she fears she would not have managed. It has since closed, something Fleet, an energetic and expressive conversationalist, did not believe possible when canvassing for Labour in 2010. Then, aged 26, she felt “disingenuous” handing out leaflets that warned of tax credit cuts and SureStart closures. “I told my campaign manager: ‘I can’t hand this out, it isn’t true.’ And here we are now.” Ashfield has borne the brunt of austerity, and health outcomes are among the worst in the country. Unsurprisingly, Fleet believes the biggest issues facing the constituency are cuts to education and the state of the NHS locally: 84 per cent of local schools have lost an average of £196 per pupil since 2010. Labour is also pledging a raft of measures to help former miners access pensions and healthcare.

But can she overcome Brexit and unease over Corbyn? A common refrain, Fleet says, is: “Not while he’s in charge.” Her reply is simple: “I say: ‘The alternative is Boris Johnson!’ And they say: ‘No, no, no, no. I don’t like him. We don’t like Tories round here!’ That’s why these conversations are so important. When you actually ask them what they want, they are with us.” Though no Corbynista, she has been publicly critical of those who say they cannot vote for her because of her leader. Fleet is also a rarity among Labour candidates in that she sincerely agrees with the party’s position on Brexit. Locally, however, Leavers and Remainers alike do not. To reassure the former group she carries a letter from Johnson to De Piero, thanking her for her vote on the Brexit deal. But she nonetheless understands the apathy on the doorsteps. “The first thing people say to me is that they’ve had enough of politics and don’t know why we’re having a general election,” she says. “I completely agree.”

When, then, is she bothering? Holding Ashfield might prove impossible and the campaign has been ugly. Last month the window of her campaign office was smashed in a targeted attack. “I enjoy my life. I enjoy my children, and my four dogs, and I enjoy a quiet life. I feel like I’ve worked hard for a good career – that proper working-class work ethic. I’ve worked hard, and I’m proud of what I’ve achieved. Politics, as a young woman, seems like something I would like to avoid.” She shrugs. “It’s shit. It’s really shit. But it’s about giving back to a party and area that gave so much to me.” 

***

Were we anywhere else in the so-called Red Wall, it would be easy – if not sensible – to conclude that Fleet was on a hiding to nothing. Pollsters certainly think so. Neither she nor Anderson is too worried about the Brexit Party, whose candidate Martin Daubney, the former editor of men’s magazine Loadedinsists he can win. Like Anderson, Daubney’s father used to work these coalfields. Last month, the evening after I met his rivals, I watched Daubney speak alongside Nigel Farage at the Bentinck, the last miners’ welfare club in the area. Taking to the microphone, he huffed the air performatively. “The smell of my childhood!” he exclaimed with rehearsed enthusiasm. 

Anderson has the most to worry about but likens Farage to a boxer in his thirties, unwisely returning for one last bout. Fleet, meanwhile, says of his voters: “I don’t think they were with us in 2017, and I don’t think they were with us in 2015.” That might be true. There is, however, a provable appetite for a different kind of politics in Ashfield. And so I trudge up the hill to Kirkby-in-Ashfield meet the J who will really decide whether the Tories can overturn decades of Labour rule in this pocket of Nottinghamshire: not Jeremy, but Jason Zadrozny, the independent leader of Ashfield District Council. His party, the Ashfield Independents, won control of the council in May by a Pyongyang-style margin: it now holds 30 of 35 seats, having won more than 70 per cent of the vote in each. Now Zadrozny's sights are set on Westminster. It's thanks to him this race is among the most interesting in the country – and, with Ladbrokes at least, the most wagered on.

“This seat won’t decide who the prime minister is, no matter what Ladbrokes say,” Zadrozny, who is 39, tells me when we meet at his office. “We can have someone who faces outward, to the constituency, rather than inward to a parliamentary party.” He sells himself on the doors as the only Leave candidate who can win, having voted for Brexit in 2016. So much so that he has replaced his name on Twitter with a blunt message: "The ONLY Leave candidate who can beat Labour here." (He would vote for Boris Johnson's deal.)

I ask Zadrozny which party should fear him most. “ALL OF THEM!” he booms, before going on to explain that he sees the race as a straight fight between himself and Labour (both parties are pouring in manpower and resources to stop him). He cheerfully admits to having “lobbed a grenade” into Johnson’s electoral strategy. The Ashfield Independents have surveyed 60,000 residents in the past six months and believe Labour’s support has a high floor. “You’ve got to knock on people’s doors and look into the whites of their eyes to know what they really think - and the Labour vote has not gone... Corbyn could stab somebody tomorrow and get 30 per cent of the vote here.”

Zadrozny’s rivals speak of his campaigning operation with a mixture of derision and fear. "Cult” is a word activists from both of the main parties use spontaneously. Anderson admits his impact on the race will be hard to predict. In 2010, Zadrozny, then a Liberal Democrat, came within 192 votes of unseating De Piero. No independent has won at a general election in Great Britain since 2005. Can he do it this time? “It depends how you frame the question in people’s minds,” he says, outlining the same dilemma that faces Anderson. “If they go to the ballot box and ask themselves who they want to be prime minister, then I don’t stand a chance. 

“But if they’re thinking about what they want for the next four and a half years once Brexit is over - a rabid Tory government with an outright majority, or someone banging the drum bloody loud for every one of the issues I care about? I think just from demonstrable things delivered while just being a councillor, I’ve proven I can be trusted.” On the stump, he unashamedly says he will sell his vote to the highest bidder in a hung parliament. “They know I’m not the sort of person to be quiet, either.” 

Indeed they do. Zadrozny’s face is everywhere. Pick up a copy of the Chad, the local weekly, and one cannot move for mentions of his name. “He spends a lot of time campaigning,” says Fleet, “and not a lot of time delivering.” But he has undoubtedly changed politics here. “Gloria de Piero had two office managers,” Zadrozny says. “One of them’s the Tory candidate, and the other’s in my cabinet.” 

Control of the council has given him a powerbase most minor party candidates could only dream of. “I’ve got an ambassador for every thousand houses,” he boasts. “We made a conscious decision eighteen months ago to humanise the council, and give it an accountable face. For better or worse, that’s me. Having a funny name also helps.” (His Polish grandparents were miners.)

He puts his success down to the failure of both Labour and the Tories to resolve the problems that really rile his constituents: crime, the NHS, housing, poor infrastructure, low wages, policing cuts, and a flight of graduates. “This is one of those places that’s voted the same way for generations, and nothing’s ever changed. I guess that’s why people voted Brexit in such high numbers. They’ve got nothing left to lose. I don’t think they’ve ever been fought for, really, in local or national government.”

If Zadrozny does pull off a famous victory – and the bookmakers suspect he might – it will make for a doubly implausible story. Six weeks before the 2015 election, he was arrested on 24 historic child sex abuse charges, which were later dropped on the morning of his trial in 2017 after the Crown Prosecution Service chose not to present any evidence. 

He believes he was the victim of a political conspiracy orchestrated by Paddy Tipping, the Labour police and crime commissioner for Nottinghamshire. “I can’t wait for parliamentary privilege,” he says, eyes narrowing in mock menace. Yet Ashfield still votes for him. The only outward sign of the episode is a huge tattoo of a wolf on his right forearm – a tribute to his father, who died of a heart attack in the aftermath of his arrest. “The personal toil was tough,” he says. “The politics have been fine.”

***

Voters in Ashfield agree. At Showstoppers, a trophy and rosette shop over the road from Zadrozny’s council office, owner Alan Cooke hosts regular discussions on the state of the nation. Having supplied the 2012 Olympics, the Brexiteer is a fan of Johnson, who he describes as a “likeable buffoon”. Nine customers out of ten, he says, are disgruntled Leavers. A photo of Rik Mayall’s Alan B’Stard sneering over his shoulder, Cooke cautions me against seeing the area as a Labour heartland, pointing to new private housing estates - home to Tory exiles from Nottingham, like himself. 

But Zadrozny might get his vote on Thursday. “It’s going to break my heart not to vote Conservative, because we only lost by 400 last time,” he says. “I don’t know whether Jason is going to walk it or not. The worrying thing is that the two of them could split it.” 

Helping man the till is Emma Leech, Alan’s daughter. She, too, voted Leave and is a fan of Johnson – “a lovable rogue” – in a similar bind over Zadrozny. “I’d vote for him,” she says, and indeed she did in 2010. Beech is cautiously optimistic about the future of the area: industrial estates and distribution centres for the Co-op supermarket and Amazon are slowly replacing the pits. “But nationally, it’s tricky.”

Whatever happens, she cannot see Fleet winning. “It’ll be huge around here, because everyone votes Labour. But more and more people are having to think about it. I’ve never met a single person who likes Jeremy Corbyn.”

Yet some here do. Ahmed Khan, a 59-year-old stay-at-home carer, is a Remainer who self-identifies as a “socialist without a home”. He resigned his Labour membership over Brexit, but will "absolutely" vote tactically for Fleet. “As far as I’m concerned, the prime motivation is to keep the Tories out,” he says. He has felt “duty-bound” to convince the ex-miners with whom he shares an allotment to do the same, to little avail. 

Up the high street in Scoffer’s, a sandwich bar, political chat is banned. “Don’t ask us about politics,” comes the exasperated reply through the serving hatch. “We don’t have the answers!” Voters like Khan that might do if Anderson and Zadrozny do end up splitting the Leave electorate. The Liberal Democrats won less than 2 per cent of the vote here last time. Any increase at Labour’s expense could be just as lethal for their chances of holding on.

My mind flits back to the canvass in Annesley, where, incongruously, an EU flag fluttered proudly above a bungalow. “There’s your picture, mate,” one Labour official joked. If the party is to hold on, it might need to be Fleet’s too. 

Patrick Maguire was political correspondent at the New Statesman.