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“The Tory Party! What a bloody shambles!” one of Lee Anderson’s constituents declared.
We were in the New Cross pub in Sutton-in-Ashfield, where Anderson was conducting a Friday morning surgery.
“The only person I’ve met who’s done anything right is you,” the man, a retired chemical engineer, went on.
Anderson, a former coal miner and Labour councillor who in 2019 captured for the Tories the seat of Ashfield on the western edge of Nottinghamshire, has become a political celebrity, acclaimed on GB News as “the Red Wall Rottweiler”, and was earlier this month made Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party.
But it was notable, spending a day with him during which he met dozens of his constituents, how carefully he listened to them.
“If Rishi Sunak was here, what would you say to him?” Anderson asked his constituent.
“I’d say to him grow some balls,” the man replied, before expounding in a muddled way the Government’s ills, and concluding: “You’ve no hope of getting into power at the next election.”
Anderson replied in a mild tone: “We will. There’ll always be an England. Blair had charisma. He had some sound policies. He had the minimum wage policy which round here doubled people’s wages overnight. He had heavyweights in his Cabinet. I can’t think of a single person in Starmer’s Shadow Cabinet who anyone’s ever heard of.”
Having already persuaded the man to join the Conservative Party, he now agreed with him that the trans lobby are “absolute nutters”:
“When I was born, the doctor said to my father, ‘Congratulations Mr Anderson you’ve got a baby boy.’ He didn’t say, ‘Congratulations, we don’t know what you’ve got. Here’s some puberty blockers. Come back when they’re 18.'”
Next, a paramedic called Simon Parry who is an evangelist for defibrillators told Anderson there are far too few in Ashfield.
By the end of this conversation, which included a lucid account of how the heart works, Anderson had committed himself to getting a defibrillator installed outside every pub in Ashfield, at a cost of £1200 each:
“We could actually make it a competition between pubs to see who could raise the money quickest. Let’s kick off with this pub, the New Cross.”
He at once explained the plan to the hospitable Shinto Mathbu, landlord of the New Cross, known to his customers as Matthew.
Parry offered free training in the use of the defibrillators. Anderson said he would encourage the breweries to chip in: “A thousand pounds for a brewery is nothing,”
He praised the excellent value of the beer in the New Cross, where no pint costs more than £2.90, and remarked: “Twenty years ago if a Conservative MP had come in this pub they’d have got beaten up.”
Next came a very difficult problem. Four distraught residents came to Anderson to complain that their lives are being made a misery by the dogs, fires with choking smoke, throwing of faeces over the fence and other anti-social behaviour of a group of travellers who have moved onto the patch of ground next door.
“If we were younger we would have moved,” a man explained. “We bought the bungalow there to retire to.”
“The council just aren’t doing a thing about it,” a woman said. She had been told on the telephone to stop complaining or she would be in court for harassment.
A police officer and a representative of the council briefly outlined what they could and could not do, before Anderson unexpectedly suggested it would be best to try “some mediation” first.
Anderson is a less predictable figure than his opponents may understand. At one point he remarked: “As I’m getting older I’m having vegetarian feelings. We’re breeding animals just to eat them.”
A couple complained about a cruise they had been on where an extraordinary number of things went wrong, including a broken air conditioning system which rendered their cabin “unbearably cold”. The husband said:
“I want at least half my money back because it was an absolute disaster. It’s a vast corporation. They just ignore me.”
Anderson: “They won’t ignore me.”
Before the surgery, Anderson drove to West Nottinghamshire College to talk to Mark Hammans, who runs a small charity called Aid2Gambia, staffed entirely by volunteers, which donates and drives ex-NHS ambulances and other equipment to Gambia.
The ambulances are first renovated by the instructors and trainees at the college, with the charity paying for spare parts. The vehicle which had just arrived was going to need a lot of work, having had its interior stripped out by someone who had hoped to turn it into a camper van.
Hammans spoke with passion about the difference the ambulances make in Gambia, enabling women in in danger of dying in childbirth to get to hospital in time for their lives to be saved.
“I’ve got some money,” Anderson said. “Last week in The Guardian they produced a horrible cartoon of me. I signed a copy of it and they auctioned it for £400. That’ll teach them.”
Apart from this donation, he promised to do what he could to get publicity for the charity, by mentioning it in the Commons, and questioned Hammans about the best way to provide overseas aid.
“That’s where I did my mining craft apprenticeship, West Notts College,” Anderson said as we left. “It’s my college.”
He has never moved more than five miles from where, in 1967, he was born. His father was a miner, and in 1984, unlike most miners in Nottinghamshire, came out on strike and joined the picket line, where Lee, not yet a miner, joined him: “I’ve seen my Dad arrested and thrown in the back of a police van.”
His father was on strike for nearly a year: “The worst part was he went back and had to work with men who’d dodged the picket lines.”
“We loathed Thatcher with a passion,” Anderson said as he recalled the devastating effects of pit closures on local communities.
His heroes in those days were Arthur Scargill, the President of the National Union of Mineworkers, Dennis Skinner, former miner and MP for Bolsover for 49 years, and Tony Benn, all of whom he heard speak in Chesterfield, Benn’s seat from 1984-2001.
After 11 or 12 years as a miner himself, Anderson became a single parent, “packed up my mining career”, and started working for Citzens Advice Bureau, from which after about ten years he was recruited by Gloria de Piero, Labour MP for Ashfield from 2010-17, for whom he ran two general election campaigns.
He himself became in 2015 a Labour councillor, but soon afterwards Momentum mounted a coup, took over the local party and began behaving in a more and more objectionable way.
In 2018, at a Labour Group meeting, one of the Momentum members asked Anderson, “Have you ever read the works of Karl Marx?”
“No,” Anderson replied, whereupon the Momentum man said: “Why don’t you f*** off and join the Tory Party?”
“The Labour Party do give good career advice,” Anderson remarked with a laugh, for that is what he did.
He related how he had been out campaigning in 2017 with de Piero and she asked him to talk to an old miner, in his eighties, and find out how he was going to vote.
The aged pitman told Anderson: “In the 1980s I was thinking, we’ve worked all our lives and we don’t own anything. We’ve nothing to leave to our children.
“Then Maggie allowed me to buy my council house. I no longer feel worthless.”
Anderson thought to himself, “I can’t argue with that,” and told de Piero: “He’s voting Conservative and I don’t f***ing blame him.”
To ConHome he added: “Sorry for the language, but you’re in Ashfield. When in Rome…”
His work at Citizens Advice had also given him food for thought: “I remember one family in particular, with five children. The Mum and Dad never worked.
“All five children were labelled with having ADHD. Once they’re labelled they get DLA [Disability Living Allowance], which exempts you from the benefits cap.
“It’s very lucrative. This family was getting £53,000 net – you’d need to earn about £73,000 gross to get that kind of income. The kids growing up being classified as disabled were going to live a life of being disabled when they’re not, and the cycle starts again, and that’s just wrong.”
He had grown up in a household where the alarm clock of his father, the miner, went off at 4.30 each morning: “Hearing that for years and years conditioned me to know I had to do the same. That was what men did.”
So what did his parents think of him becoming a Tory?
“They were very grumpy when I first joined the Tory Party,” he replied, “but then they fell in love with Boris.”
Anderson said that episodes such as getting stuck on the zip wire, and the rugby tackle by Johnson during a charity football match, made working-class people think, “Oh, he’s making mistakes. He’s one of us. He’s happy to laugh at himself.
“When my Dad saw the rugby tackle, he could not stop laughing, especially as it were Germany as well.”
Every Friday evening for months to come, Anderson will be addressing Conservative associations:
“I feel a debt to the party because of where I came from. Five years ago I was a Labour councillor. They rescued me and gave me the opportunity to be the MP for where I live. It’s my thank you, going to these associations and giving my little red to blue speech.”
“Since he became Deputy Chairman everyone wants a piece of him,” one of his staff said.
“Has anyone tried, since your promotion, to muzzle you?” ConHome asked, to which he replied:
“When I got the job, the message loud and clear was ‘keep saying what you’re saying, keep doing what you’re doing’.”
For lunch, we went to Steve’s Fish Bar in Sutton-in-Ashfield, where Anderson discussed, with Steve, the fortunes of Mansfield Town Football Club, the supply of potatoes, and the ever-changing weather, with Anderson remarking: “I’m pretty sure it’s been changing for millions of years.”
After lunch we proceeded to Idlewells Indoor Market, which Anderson described as “my barometer” and “one of the best markets in the country”, and talked to some of the stallholders, most of whom said they were reasonably content with the trade they are doing.
“He’s very well respected round here apart from the idiots,” one stallholder said.
“Well you need balance,” Anderson replied. “You need some idiots.”
The media are excited by the prospect of a boxing match between him and Steve Bray, the Westminster protester with whom he had a recent scuffle, not that Bray sounds at all keen on entering the ring.
Anderson, though not, in his youth, a boxer, told ConHome: “I know an ex-pro. I’ve had offers of coaching. If Bray sticks to the original terms I’ll do it.”
He would use the fight to raise money for a male suicide charity: “My friend’s son killed himself. It opened a can of worms for me. I promised him if I became an MP I’d raise money for his charity.”
Like many men who tell jokes, Anderson does so in part as a protective screen for his feelings. He is, one might say, the Boris Johnson of Ashfield, connecting with the wider public because it senses his vulnerability as well as his toughness.