Beast on run! Labour's Dennis Skinner facing HUGE election battle as 'Red Wall' collapses

Labour veteran Dennis Skinner

Labour veteran Dennis Skinner (Image: Getty Images)

The party faces the epic challenge of trying to cling onto some of the most pro-Brexit parts of the country while promising Remainers a second referendum. If this proves Mission: Impossible, Boris Johnson could achieve the incredible and see a swathe of Labour heartland seats turn blue on election night. Mr Corbyn’s chances of forming a government are truly in trouble if Labour is in peril in Bolsover, the political home of 87-year-old left-winger Mr Skinner. His majority crashed from 11,778 in 2015 to 5,288 in 2017. In neighbouring Ashfield, the collapse in support has been even more dramatic.

In Bolsover, where more than seven out of 10 voters backed Leave in 2016, Mr Skinner will hope that his track record as a Labour eurosceptic will stand him in good stead.

There, the Labour majority plummeted from 8,820 to just 441. On the district council, 30 of the 35 councillors are “Ashfield Independents” – and the leader of the group, Jason Zadrozny, wants to be the next MP.

This will stir fears that just as support for Labour has largely vaporised in Scotland, it will also be ousted from former industrial communities in England and Wales.

On election night, strategists will keep a close eye on Wrexham – Labour’s most marginal seat in Wales which is among the first to declare in the UK. This ancient market town has elected a Labour MP in every election since 1935; if the Conservatives wrestle it from Labour’s hold this could be the first sign a revolution is afoot.

Dennis Skinner

Dennis Skinner faces huge general election battle (Image: Getty Images)

In Bolsover, where more than seven out of 10 voters backed Leave in 2016, Mr Skinner will hope that his track record as a Labour eurosceptic will stand him in good stead.

He told us in a statement: “My view on the EU hasn’t changed. I was against joining the Common Market decades ago and I voted to Leave in the referendum.

“But what I won’t do is support a Tory deal that threatens jobs and leaves us all worse off.”

Not all Labour activists who back Brexit have felt able to stay in the party.

Lee Anderson was once at the heart of the Ashfield Labour machine, as a councillor who worked for the then-MP, Gloria De Piero.

“When I came out as this Brexiteer, the local Labour group just shunned me,” he says. “It was like I was a leper.”

Today, this 52-year-old former miner is the local Conservative candidate.

“People have been telling me all week they are going to vote Conservative for the first time,” he says during a break in campaigning. “[They] want Brexit done and they see this as their second referendum.

“I say to them, ‘This is your chance now to give parliament a good kicking.’”

Brexit represented as a puzzle

j (Image: Getty Images)

Candidates such as Mr Anderson are talking about more than Brexit. He is scathing about Labour’s record on education and crime – and livid at what he sees as a takeover of the party by the hard left.

He blames Labour for stripping young people of a vital chance to succeed, saying: “We were always told, ‘Work hard, do your 11-plus, and then you’d go to grammar school and then you won’t have to go down the pit.’ But the year I was due to take the 11-plus the Labour party stopped it…
“It took opportunity away.”

There is no sign of nostalgia for his old party.

“If Clement Attlee was alive now he’d be in the Conservative party,” he argues. “He would not be in this rabble of a Labour party.”

His Brexit Party rival is Martin Daubney, a former editor of lads’ magazine Loaded who was this year elected an MEP.

“There’s a political promiscuity and a volatility the likes of which I have never seen in my entire life,” he says.

He argues it would have made sense for the Conservatives to have stood down in Ashfield – just as his party decided not to field candidates against incumbent Tories – but says: “Boris would rather risk a hung Parliament than let the Brexit Party get a beachhead in the Houses of Parliament.”

The father-of-two is clear about his mission in the remaining weeks of the campaign: “The biggest challenge is going to be turning apathy into hope.”

This coal-miner’s son dismisses HS2 as a way of “getting Londoners around the country quicker” and speaks of his desire to stop top talent being sucked away to London.

“You can be a brilliant football player in Nottingham Forest but you’ll get signed by Chelsea,” he says. “In the end, the best brains in places like Nottinghamshire just end up going to London and it’s the same nationwide.”

Ambition is also at the heart of 34-year-old Conservative candidate Mark Fletcher’s vision for Bolsover.

His mother died after falling down stairs when he was 17 and he ended up living on his own. This didn’t stop him excelling in sixth form and he won a place at Cambridge, where he became president of the student’s union.

A top goal is ensuring that local young people will also benefit from a top education.

Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom

Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (Image: Getty Images)

Prime Minister and Conservative leader, Boris Johnson

‘Boris Johnson could achieve the incredible and see a swathe of Labour heartland seats turn blue’ (Image: Getty Images)

He says: “Irrespective of background, schools need to have high standards. It’s particularly important when you’re from working class backgrounds to be able to get access to a good school. For me, that is absolutely vital.”

If he does win a place in parliament, he would most like to be Transport Secretary or Education Secretary.

“If there are two things that fundamentally make a difference to people’s lives day to day, it’s having a good education and being able to get around and be connected,” he says.

His Brexit Party rival for the Bolsover crown is poetry-loving former police officer Kevin Harper. He was enjoying his retirement when the Brexit Party was formed and he jumped into the political arena.

He sees Nigel Farage’s party not just as a vital force to make Brexit a reality, but also as a tool to unlock the true regeneration of post-industrial communities such as Bolsover.

“London and the South, [they] have had money all of the time,” he says. “And that is going to change.

“We are going to look at massive reinvestment in the North of England.”

However, local Labour activist, Jane Yates, 53, says Mr Skinner’s support for miners during the strikes of the 1980s will not be forgotten, and nor will the bonds he has forged with voters since his election in 1970.

Though he may be known in Westminster as the “beast of Bolsover,” she describes an MP who visits care homes to sing to the elderly residents.

When asked if he has a cuddly side, Ms Yates says: “I’ve never cuddled him. I’ve had a hug.”

Over in Wrexham, the pavement battle is no less intense.

Tory candidate Sarah Atherton is adamant that “Wrexham is ripe for change”.

This 52 year-old self-styled “passionate Brexiteer” was not born to a life of privilege. She left her comprehensive school at the age of 16 and served in the army before working as a nurse and a social worker and raising a son as a single mother.

Nigel Farage, leader of the Brexit Party

Nigel Farage, leader of the Brexit Party (Image: Getty Images)

When asked to name her political hero, she doesn’t choose Tory icons Winston Churchill or Margaret Thatcher but instead says: “It’s got to be Frank Field.”

Mr Field has represented nearby Birkenhead since 1979 but last year resigned the Labour whip in protest at anti-Semitism and a “culture of intolerance, nastiness and intimidation”. Ms Atherton praises his “good morals and values” and argues that in Wrexham it is time to end the “Labour lock”.

Her Brexit Party rival is Ian Berkeley-Hurst, a solicitor and father of four who argues Wrexham remains “unwinnable” for the Tories.

He says there is a realistic chance that 20 Brexit Party MPs will be elected and he looks forward to forming a powerful block in Parliament with the DUP.

“We are going to change politics,” he says. “There are no two ways about that.

“So, I’m excited. It’s very much like a religion to me.”

Ian Lucas, who represented the seat for Labour since 2001, is not standing again. Labour’s new candidate is Mary Wimbury, a 50 year-old Oxford maths graduate who is seen as belonging to the right of the party.

She is sceptical about Labour Leave voters backing the Conservatives, saying: “I think a lot of things that drove the Leave vote were anger at Tory austerity and what was being done to the country.”

Describing the Brexit situation as a “mess,” she argues the “least worst option” is to hold a new referendum.

She is a prominent member of Progress, once seen as a bastion of New Labour thought, and she makes it clear that she if she wins the election she will be nobody’s puppet in Westminster.

“It’s my name on the ballot paper,” she says. “I’m going to be standing up for Wrexham and that will be my priority…

“I’ve been a party member under a lot of different leaders and if I think they’re wrong I’ll tell them.”

Professor Roger Awan-Scully of Cardiff University, a leading election expert, stressed what is at stake for the Conservatives, saying: “If the Tories are falling short in Wrexham it probably means that they are falling short in general.”

The fate of the country could hinge on the decisions of voters in a cluster of constituencies that were at the heart of the industrial revolution. Britain’s biggest parties neglect these men and women at their peril.


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