It started with a sycamore tree. ‘My grandfather didn’t want a fuss,’ bricklayer and Community Independent councillor Ross Walker, explains. ‘So when he died we bought a memorial tree. Then one day, my mum went to visit and there was a council sign nailed to it. “This tree is being chopped down.” I told Mum not to get upset, it must be a mistake. So I rang the council. And they said, “No mistake. It’s damaging walls. We’re chopping it down.” ’
I’m in Bolsover, the sort of seat where they once needed scales to measure the size of the Labour vote. Local MP Dennis ‘The Beast’ Skinner is party royalty. But two years ago the constituency experienced a significant political tremor.
Skinner’s majority was slashed in half as the Tory vote surged from 24.5 per cent to 40.6 per cent (Skinner took 24,153 votes, the Tories 18,865 and Ukip and the Lib Dems 2,129 and 1,372).
Labour MP for Bolsolver Dennis Skinner. Two years ago the constituency experienced a significant political tremor
Then in April, the earthquake finally struck. Ross Walker and his fellow independents secured 16 seats in the local elections, reducing Labour to 18 seats – one short of an overall majority on the district council – and breaking its 40-year stranglehold.
‘Labour didn’t listen. They were just taking people for granted,’ Walker explains before announcing he’s standing again in this year’s General Election. ‘I’m going to win as well,’ he adds.
In the Courtyard Kitchen cafe, Helen Smith certainly isn’t writing him off. ‘People round here normally vote Labour,’ she explains, ‘but that’s changing.’
A traditional Labour voter, she thinks Jeremy Corbyn is ‘a wet lettuce’. Boris ‘has got something about him. But he’s a Tory. So I haven’t decided yet’.
Helen’s comments reflect one of the major fault lines running through the 2019 campaign. When you first enter Bolsover village every other lamppost is sporting a large red poppy. Walk into a shop and you’ll be greeted with a politically incorrect ‘Hiya Duck’.
Bolsover may be instinctively Labour, but it’s the antithesis of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour
Bolsover may be instinctively Labour, but it’s the antithesis of Corbyn’s Labour.
It’s this contradiction Skinner is battling. The former local miner is popular. Everyone you speak to has a story of him ‘doing a solid’ for a friend or neighbour. But there’s also a sense the time may have come for him to hand over the baton. ‘Dennis is getting a bit long in the tooth’, is a sentiment you hear a lot.
Another problem is that his bid to extend his 49-year tenure as MP has been delayed by a hip operation, leaving Labour council group leader Steve Fritchley to temporarily spearhead the campaign.
Fritchley – himself a no-nonsense, tattooed former miner – is a loyal tribune. ‘Dennis is a fighter. And people round here know it,’ he insists. But he can sense danger on the horizon. And in an Election where Labour strategists are desperate to avoid the ‘B’ word, he is refreshingly open about why. ‘Problems have been accumulating and Brexit has given people a handle on them,’ he says. ‘It’s a big issue. It’s also about democracy. If I went against democracy in this council, people here would kill me.’
Brexit is the issue that will decide local cab driver Glynn Cardwell’s vote. ‘Boris is a bit of a prat. But at least he’s trying to get Brexit done. I quite like Farage. But actually voting for him? Whoah, that would be something. Brexit’s got to go through, though.’
The Brexit Party candidate Kevin Harper is a former Derbyshire policeman. ‘I voted for Dennis Skinner,’ he reveals, ‘but Brexit is the number one issue in Bolsover now.’ As it was in 2016, when 70 per cent of local voters backed Leave.
Harper claims he’s detecting similar levels of support. ‘Obviously one or two are just trying to get you off their doorstep. But from my police background I tend to get a good feel for people. And overall I think we’re the dominant party in this constituency.’
The Brexit Party candidate Kevin Harper is a former Derbyshire policeman.‘I voted for Dennis Skinner,’ he reveals, ‘but Brexit is the number one issue in Bolsover now.’ As it was in 2016, when 70 per cent of local voters backed Leave’
A claim not quite supported by the patrons of Mason’s Little Cafe, who listened to his Election pitch with polite scepticism. ‘If you’re not a miner’s son, you don’t get in round here,’ Chris, a retired hospital worker, whispered to me. Before adding, ‘But there’s fewer people who’ll be voting Labour this time than say they’ll be voting Labour.’
All of which will be music to the ears of Tory candidate Mark Fletcher. Born in Barnsley and raised in Doncaster, the former healthcare manager’s grandfather worked at the local pit, as did his mother who was an industrial chemist employed by the Coal Board.
‘I like mining seats,’ he says, ‘they’re good, kind people here.’ Fletcher is respectful – even deferential – to his Labour opponent. ‘I admire his record of work, and if elected I could only hope to have a fraction of his impact.’
But he’s not averse to striking at what he believes is Skinner’s Achilles heel. ‘He’s positioned himself as a Eurosceptic. But he hasn’t voted to leave the EU in the recent votes. He hasn’t voted for Boris’s deal and he voted to delay Brexit. And that really is not acceptable.’
There are dangers with engaging in ‘election tourism’ in seats like Bolsover. The mine Dennis Skinner last worked in closed half a century ago, making narratives about Thatcherism’s destructive legacy increasingly out-dated.
Supermarket giant Morrisons is making a major investment in the area. A new police station is being opened. Historic Bolsover Castle – described as the Mar-a-Lago of its day – is to form the centre of new council tourism drive.
But spend a couple of days and some clear themes emerge. Themes that will have a major influence on the decision the nation takes on December 12. One is the toxicity of Jeremy Corbyn. Criticism of him sounded like it had been cribbed from Tory campaign talking points. His antisemitism. His support for terrorists. The lack of respect he has for the Queen.
Another is that, while Boris is liked, he is still not trusted. And he has yet to close the deal with those former Labour voters he needs if he is going to win a majority.
But the most significant thing relates to how this campaign has been framed. No 10 wanted it to be the People versus Parliament. And they have their wish.
Sadie, a waitress, encapsulated something I heard time and time again. ‘I work. I own my own flat. But soon I’ll have to go into a home. And to pay for it, I’ll have to sell the flat. But someone who hasn’t done a day’s work will get it handed to them. It’s all wrong.’ Which of the politicians did she blame for this? ‘All of them,’ she replied.
The Brexit Election is becoming the ‘plague on all your houses’ Election. Normally, MPs such as Dennis Skinner would benefit from the incumbency effect. But being an established political figure is now a millstone. And unless a deal can be struck between Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, the Brexit Party is poised to cause mayhem. As are the Lib Dems and the Greens and independents like Ross Walker. Basically, anyone not part of the increasingly despised post-war political duopoly.
Just before I left Steve Fritchley’s office, he repeated the plea he’d made throughout our chat. ‘I’m just saying to people, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.” ’
Unfortunately, for Dennis Skinner and his colleagues, that’s exactly what the people are preparing to do.