Could Labour Brexit backers help the Tories gain Tynemouth and Bishop Auckland?

Could Labour Brexit backers help the Tories gain Tynemouth and Bishop Auckland?

I’ve spent several days in my home region of the North East visiting key election battlegrounds to find out if Brexit will have an effect at the ballot box: will a Conservative Party that backs Brexit manage to sway Labour heartlands into voting blue on 8th June?

Bishop Auckland

Bishop Auckland (Estimated Leave vote at the June 2016 referendum: 60.9%)

First up I’m in Bishop Auckland in County Durham, a real Labour heartland, a seat held by the Labour Party since 1935, but a target seat for the Conservatives at this General Election. The seat covers the market town along with surrounding smaller places such as Spennymoor, Chilton and Shildon. When you take into account the heavy Leave vote and the fact that UKIP took over 7,000 votes at the previous election but aren’t standing this time, on paper a Tory gain seems a real possibility.

Helen Goodman, the sitting Labour MP, was “parachuted in” to the seat, according to one resident that I spoke to who voted UKIP in 2015. The retired former steel worker told me he doesn’t know who to back now that UKIP aren’t standing here: “I always voted Labour before them. I used to work for British Steel, I remember having it quite good under Harold Wilson… but, you know, I voted Leave and I might go Conservative in this next one.” I asked him if Brexit would help him switch his vote, and he said it would.

I made several calls to both the Labour and Conservative campaigns, but they weren’t keen to have their campaigns shadowed and questions on Brexit put to them. This a sore topic for someone like Goodman, who could well lose her seat and, if she does, Brexit could well have played a part in that. So I decided to get out and about in the constituency and take my questions to voters.

In a local supermarket one of the workers there told me that “this area has always been Labour. You go to some Conservative areas and they’re really nice – what has Labour ever done for us? I’m voting Conservative. I like Theresa May. He [Corbyn] wants another referendum, that’s not how it works, when you lose at Monopoly you don’t get another roll of the dice, we voted, we’re leaving. I’ve voted Labour and Lib Dem before, even independent – but this time I’m voting Conservative.”

Oddly enough, the majority of voters I came across backed Remain in the referendum, despite this being a heavily Leave area. One retired factory worker told me that he voted to Remain last year and wasn’t sure who he’d back yet, saying his reason for backing Remain was built around his concerns for British manufacturing, but that he had “seen things go pretty well since the vote, it hasn’t been as bad as I thought, and I probably would vote different now. I’ve seen shares that I had invested in do pretty well since the vote.”

The Conservative candidate, Christopher Adams, told the regional paper, the Northern Echo, that “constituents want somebody who’s up for Brexit and will make the best of the opportunities,” and this echoes what one older constituent told me in a nearby supermarket. Adams will be hoping that a mix of Brexit, a desire for change and Theresa May’s leadership will deliver him the seat. As you can see in the above chart, Electoral Calculus expects him to win it, and if he does it is hard to deny that Brexit won’t have played a part in his election.


Tynemouth (Estimated Leave vote at the June 2016 referendum: 47.6%)


Tynemouth is a beautiful seat by the sea, packed with beautiful Victorian houses and filled with voters who are proud of their area and proud to be British. If this seat were anywhere other than the North East, it’s hard to imagine it not being a Conservative stronghold. “Voters here love Britain, they’re not going to vote for Jeremy Corbyn,” the Conservative challenger in Tynemouth, Nick Varley (who ran Vote Leave’s ground campaign) tells me in his packed constituency office. I was surprised and taken aback by just how many activists had turned out for a day of canvassing on a beautiful Saturday, until Michael Gove arrived as the ‘surprise’ guest and was instantly engulfed by students from Durham University seeking selfies with the former Lord Chancellor – I kid you not!

Labour’s candidate here in Tynemouth, the sitting MP Alan Campbell, is one of Jeremy Corbyn’s key supporters in Parliament. As Deputy Chief Whip, his job is to help deliver whatever Jeremy Corbyn wants, a message Varley and his team are keen to push. Meanwhile, the attacks on Varley imply he is nothing more than a party establishment machine politician, toeing the party line – a charge that I doubt has been applied to him many times before…

The door-knocking I observed was in what were mainly considered to be firm Labour areas, where voters were being targeted to see if their vote could have changed since 2015 and the local elections. I was told not to expect too many Damascene conversions to the Conservatives from this voter group, but I was quite surprised by the healthy number of voters who were, albeit reluctantly, switching their vote and backing Theresa May. The main issue the canvassers had was convincing one or two voters that it is actually Nick Varley they’re voting for, as a few were absolutely adamant that it’s Theresa May and no one else.

I asked Gove how many seats he has visited thus far and he said the number stood at about nine. I then asked if he thought he was more of a hindrance than a help in Remain-voting seats: “No! Brexit definitely is not the only issue on the doorstep,” he insisted. But it’s clear from the conversations I was party to on the doorsteps of Tynemouth that voters worry about the negotiations if they’re conducted by Jeremy Corbyn. One middle-aged man opened his door, looked at the campaign literature of the canvassers I was stood next to, brought the door toward us, leant forward and whispered that he was voting Conservative. His wife, a teacher, lingering on the staircase behind him, launched forward and began berating the canvassers on the doorstep about schools funding.

It’s clear that neither seat will be an easy win, especially when some Conservatives have reservations about certain aspects of their manifesto – but it’s clear to me that by the end of Thursday a real political realignment could have taken place, with Labour’s Brexit backers possibly causing an earthquake within British politics.