‘For 14 years it’s been despicable. Enough’s enough’: in the ‘red wall’, Tory support is crumbling

‘for 14 years it’s been despicable. enough’s enough’: in the ‘red wall’, tory support is crumbling

Labour’s Marie Tidball spoke with Frank Huby, pictured, while canvassing in Silkstone, South Yorkshire, on Thursday. Photograph: Gary Calton/the Observer

It sounds odd to describe a well-to-do village with neat privet hedges, freshly mown lawns and three cars on each driveway as a no-go area. Yet for almost three decades, the pretty parish of Silkstone, on the edge of the Pennines, was unwelcoming territory for Labour folk.

The village, centred around a 12th-century church four miles outside Barnsley, was a bastion of Conservative blue surrounded by Labour red. But last May, Silkstone elected its first Labour councillor in a generation. A second followed a year later.

The electoral tremors from this little blue enclave may not have been felt in Westminster. But they help explain why Keir Starmer looks set to win a historic parliamentary majority in two weeks’ time. Not only is Labour winning back traditional supporters in the “red wall”, but it is also breaking new ground in areas it has not held for decades.

“When I said there were no no-go areas, this is what I meant,” says Dr Marie Tidball, Labour’s candidate for the constituency of Penistone and Stocksbridge in South Yorkshire, marching around what she describes as “the safest Tory ward” in the region until recently.

The breakthrough in Silkstone came not just from Starmer moving his party to the centre ground of British politics. It was also, says Tidball, on the back of a ground campaign that started more than two years ago, when she was selected to try to retake the seat from the Conservatives: “I’ve been out in the wind, rain, sun, snow. We very much haven’t just been out when it’s election time, and people appreciate that.”

In 2019, this collection of former mining villages and market towns turned its back on Labour over Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn. Voters elected Miriam Cates as the first Conservative MP in South Yorkshire since 1992.

But the enthusiasm that helped Boris Johnson to his 80-strong majority has gone into reverse, with the Tories now apparently retreating from serious campaigning in many of the “red wall” seats it captured in 2019.

Johnson campaigned alongside Cates in the constituency before the 2019 poll, but in the face of electoral oblivion, Rishi Sunak has spent the past fortnight visiting areas with majorities of more than 14,000 votes – leaving areas like Penistone and Stocksbridge, with its 7,210-vote majority, seemingly cast adrift.

Outside the colloquially named DIY shop Do It Yer Sen, in Penistone, Caron Wadsworth said she voted Conservative for the first time in 2019 but would not do so again. This time, she said, she was still undecided: “I always vote, but I haven’t made my mind up.”

Wadsworth, 59, took redundancy this month from a catalogue company where she had worked for almost four decades. She said she had little faith in any party to fix the UK’s chronic challenges.

Her husband, Ian Wadsworth, 62, embodies two of the incoming government’s most pressing issues: he is one of a record number of people out of work due to long-term illness – in his case serious knee and arm injuries caused by 40-plus years in the building trade – and NHS backlogs.

Wadsworth said he was desperate to work but has been waiting eight years for a knee operation on the NHS. He is now paying £7,000 to go private because the waiting lists are so long. Out of his three private pensions, he has already cashed in two.

His experience has left him so disillusioned he has vowed not to vote at all any more, having backed Labour all his life. “I won’t vote. They’re all the same,” he says. “I’ve paid my taxes all them years. They haven’t done nothing for me. Nobody’s done owt.”

Seeking to feed on this resentment is Nigel Farage, who said last week Reform UK was “significantly ahead of the Conservatives” in “red wall” seats. He toured the villages outside Penistone in an open-top battlebus before visiting Barnsley, where a man was arrested for pelting him with objects from a construction site.

Cates, a rising star of the Tory right, is alive to the threat from Farage. In an article for the Daily Express this month, Cates scotched rumours that she could defect to Reform, saying she would “take my chances” standing as a Tory candidate despite having “so much in common” with the rightwing party.

An evangelical Christian, Cates has made her name in Westminster on the frontline of the culture wars – advocating cuts to higher education, for example, to prevent youngsters being “indoctrinated” with liberal ideas.

But those issues seem far from anyone’s top priority in her constituency, where voters complain about a broken NHS, the cost of living crisis, housing, transport and a general sense of “anti-politics”. One Labour activist admitted there was deep cynicism towards all parties on the doorstep.

Tidball, the odds-on favourite, is seeking to counter the distrust by burnishing her local credentials: she was born in Penistone and grew up in Stocksbridge. Her mother was the head of a nursery, while her father – a Labour county councillor – worked in secondary schools and helped set up Barnsley College.

Out canvassing on Thursday, Tidball told one voter she felt “emotional” when they remembered being taught by her father. “On people coming back to Labour: people are really pleased that someone who’s grown up here, who has other life skills, would be the first person in over 100 years who has grown up here to go on and become its MP,” she said.

In Silkstone, true blue territory, she was met with broad encouragement by many of the retirees out polishing cars or mowing their lawns. “I just voted for you,” hollered Frank Huby, 72, from his freshly trimmed garden as he spotted Tidball walk by. The former miner said he and his wife abstained from voting in 2019 because they felt Corbyn had “destroyed” the party.

Down the street a retired police worker, who did not want to be named, said he would vote Labour due to a “loss of trust” with the Tories. Asked if he had seen any benefit from levelling up, Johnson’s flagship policy, he replied: “Zero. It’s probably worse, if anything. HS2 was supposed to level up, but all we got was a fast train [from Birmingham] to London.”

Glyn Littlewood, 63, a retired university lecturer, gleefully took a Labour poster to put in his window with the aim of annoying his dwindling number of Tory neighbours. “To vote Conservative you either have to be incredibly stupid or incredibly rich,” he says. “For 14 years it’s been despicable. Enough’s enough.”

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