Election 2017

General election 2017: Breaking the party line?

Newcastle Labour office

The Newcastle-under-Lyme Labour Party offices are located on a road called Dunkirk.

The party's candidate, Paul Farrelly - its MP since 2001 - is keeping calm and carrying on in the face of an attack from his well-funded political opponents, the Conservatives.

But while Labour has been in retreat in the constituency in recent elections, this time he's finding it more difficult to get rescued from the prospect of defeat.

The seat is number eight on the Tory target list.

It was highly marginal in 2015 so reinforcements were offered and Paul Farrelly scraped home with a 650-vote majority.

This time he has seen no evidence that help will be on its way.

Yet it's much needed. Not expecting a snap election, his agent and secretary have holidays they can't cancel.

He told me: "We are being outgunned. I am hoping we have enough resources to continue the campaign.

"It's an uphill battle like never before. What we are used to in marginal seats is a mass mobilisation from safer seats - and hopeless seats, quite frankly, and that's not happening this time."

This is a seat Labour needs to defend if it is to have a realistic hope of winning the general election.

Image copyright AFP/Getty
Image caption Jeremy Corbyn says Labour has "four weeks to transform the country"

But then Paul Farrelly doesn't think his party will win that election. He is not campaigning on the national message here: "If I told anyone Jeremy Corbyn was going to be prime minister they would laugh me off the streets.

"The message is to rein in the landslide Theresa May wants. Don't give Theresa May a lapdog parliament."

This is how he puts it in his official campaign literature: "Please don't let May take us over in June."

And while he mentions Theresa May in his leaflets, he doesn't mention his own leader.

"We have limited space on election leaflets and there is no space for Jeremy."

He says he doesn't usually put leaders on leaflets but adds that "Jeremy does not go down well with our core Labour support".

He is fighting a relentlessly local campaign - opposing a potential hospital closure and arguing for better school funding - rather than setting out what Labour would do in government.

And Paul Farrelly is not alone.

Although they are not queuing up to talk to the media, other Labour politicians have taken a similar approach.

Brexit factor

I've obtained a script circulating amongst Corbyn-sceptic candidates which advises them to:

  • Admit Jeremy Corbyn won't win
  • Tell voters that the country needs good independent-minded Labour MPs
  • Make clear that they shouldn't give Theresa May a blank cheque

The Conservatives believe they have another useful line of attack in Newcastle under Lyme.

Voters here backed Leave in the EU referendum. Paul Farrelly refused to vote for triggering Article 50, which formally began the Brexit process.

The Conservatives' recently selected candidate, Owen Meredith, himself voted Remain in the referendum.

He told me: "Like the prime minister, I support the result of the referendum.

"Like the prime minister I think we can make a success of Brexit. And unlike the local Labour MP I would have voted to trigger Article 50."

'Active apathy'

And well he might take that line. Though he is also fighting on local issues - he got his first job in the town - he is well aware UKIP isn't fielding a candidate here.

The party got more than 7,000 votes at the last election and as Owen Meredith put it: "Those votes are up for grabs."

But Paul Farrelly's main opponent may be active apathy.

That could sound like a contradiction in terms but I understood it when I paid a visit to the George and Dragon pub in the town centre.

The landlord, the staff, the clientele - mostly postal workers and builders - were pro-Brexit.

But it was concerns about Labour's leader that were influencing their approach to the general election - most were former Labour supporters, and they had taken a decision to stay at home on polling day.

Related Topics