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“Turnout will kill Labour,” Nick Varley declared. The Conservative candidate in Tynemouth, a seat held by Labour in 2015 with a majority of 8,240, says the experience on the doorstep of himself and his team is impossible to reconcile with the YouGov figures in today’s Times, which suggest Labour is currently on 39 per cent, ten points higher than at the last general election.
If this was true, Varley and his canvassers, who were 50-strong on Saturday and in energetic though less numerous action yesterday, would be finding voters who did not support Labour in 2015 but intend to do so now.
“I’ve had nobody,” Varley said. “Not one. The Labour core vote, when it’s not switching to us, is just utterly unenthralled. A lot of them are going to sit on their hands.
“Most opinion polls are just absolute bollocks. They don’t and can’t properly measure voting intensity.”
Anecdotal evidence suggests quite a few Labour supporters in Tynemouth who have postal votes are saying they’re not quite sure where they put the piece of paper. These voters do not feel motivated to fill out a simple ballot form in order to do their best for Jeremy Corbyn.
Alan Campbell won Tynemouth for Labour in 1997 by 11,273 votes and held it in 2015 by the still substantial margin of 8,240 votes. But in that election, UKIP gained 6,541 votes and Varley reports that in the present campaign, “We just can’t find any UKIP voters.”
Judith Wallace, leader of the opposition group on North Tyneside Council, who has kept the Conservative flag flying here for many years and is also the mother of Mark Wallace of ConservativeHome, declared in the interests of accuracy: “I’ve had one.”
Varley is only 27, but perhaps because of the rigours of the campaign, looks about ten years older. He was brought up in County Durham, attended Park View comprehensive school and then Hull University, where he read law, and has more recently worked as head of the ground campaign for Vote Leave.
He is suffering from a blister on the sole of his foot, but it was still quite difficult to keep up with him as he hastened yesterday from house to house in the Chirton and Valley wards, two parts of the seat which have traditionally voted Labour.
The constituency stretches along the river and out behind North Shields at the mouth of the Tyne, and was for a long time Conservative, held first by Dame Irene Ward and then by Sir Neville Trotter, who retained it by 597 votes in 1992, and retired before the seat was lost in the Labour landslide of 1997.
While accompanying Varley, Wallace and others as they canvassed, I began to see why the opinion polls give such varying accounts of the state of the race.
For although one could detect a general movement towards the Conservatives, it was in many cases impossible to tell for certain what individual voters would do, especially as they had not yet made up their own minds.
A woman who was mowing the lawn in front of her small brick box of a house, built a few years ago on the site of a former colliery, said: “I’m up in the air.”
Varley: “Do you like Jeremy Corbyn?”
The woman: “No. I don’t like his policy of letting immigrants in.”
Another woman, disabled, who declined to open the door fully and said she was having to pay extra rent because of the bedroom tax, lamented: “I don’t know who to believe any more. Jeremy Corbyn floats around things, he doesn’t give straight answers.”
Varley urged that Theresa May can be depended on.
The disabled woman: “But is she going to carry Brexit through?”
Varley: “I reckon she is. I ran the Leave campaign.” This was a point he often made: that he could be trusted to keep up the pressure for Brexit.
Suddenly, the woman was angry: “The people have voted. Why should we have a second referendum?”
Varley began to agree, but she cut him off by saying: “We should never have gone into it in the first place.”
The questions of social care and pensions have rendered some Conservative voters less certain to support the party. Varley talked one woman round by persuading her that the dementia tax is an improvement on the present system, even if this has not been explained properly.
This woman said: “I used to vote Labour and then Jeremy Corbyn came on the scene. He’s got no backbone.”
Corbyn is doing much to stiffen the anti-Labour vote. The mere thought of him is enough to make supporting his party impossible in many people’s eyes.
Wallace said she had last canvassed in some of these Labour areas in 1979, as a Young Conservative, and recalled that in that year, when Margaret Thatcher came in: “There was quite an enthusiasm to vote Conservative.”
She said “there’s quite a buzz” about the present Conservative campaign, which had been lacking in other recent campaigns. Nor has Tynemouth had in living memory such high-level election visits, from May herself, Philip Hammond, David Davis, Michael Gove and others. On the Labour side, Wallace had noticed only Jon Ashworth.
Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the Conservative MP for Berwick-upon-Tweed, who had come to Tynemouth to do some canvassing, said Labour voters have become more ready than ever before to support the Conservatives: “The Brexit vote last year broke a spell. They’ve been empowered by the result. It showed them their votes really matter.”
Varley agreed: “There is no cross-over between Islington Marxism and someone round here on £7.50 an hour in a part-time job.”
Trevelyan had been out in a Labour area, where she estimated that one in five Labour voters “are voting for Theresa, and are quite happy to say so”.
She hopes the North-East – a region examined yesterday on ConHome – will gain some additional Conservative MPs, who will refrain from Labour’s practice of presenting the region as “a bucket waiting for money”, and will instead start to point out its strengths: “We’ve got some of the best life sciences in the world here.”
When asked if he expects to win Tynemouth, Varley replied: “I think it’s going to be very close – the closest since 1992 [when the Conservatives won by just over 500 votes]. We have spoken to thousands of direct Labour switchers, and we need to get 2,000 of them, assuming we also get a big chunk of the UKIP vote.”
Wallace said: “I’ve got my prayer mat out.”
At lunch, I ate fish and chips at the Fish Quay in North Shields, and met an electrician from the other side of the river, so outside the constituency, who said: “I shall be voting for the Conservatives myself. I’ve always been Conservative. Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t got a bloody clue.If it was up to him we’d just give away all our guns and hope people will be nice to us.”
There have always been Tories in the North-East, and at this election they know they have their best chance in a generation to make extraordinary advances, thanks to Corbyn and Brexit. The logic of those two exceptional factors is still pushing voters towards the Conservatives.