BOLSOVER, ENGLAND — Dennis Skinner is a no-nonsense, unchanging socialist and the only British MP ever to heckle the Queen’s Speech Ceremony, when Britain’s lawmakers process from the Commons annually to the House of Lords to hear the monarch’s address outlining the government’s legislative program.
Nicknamed the “Beast of Bolsover,” a reference to the Derbyshire constituency he has represented since 1970, the 87-year-old Skinner has traditionally occupied the seat of the front bench below the gangway in the Commons, where invariably wearing a tweed jacket and red tie, he has harangued those he deems “class enemies,” earning himself a dozen cooling off’ suspensions for what was deemed “unparliamentary language.”
The son of a coal miner — his father was sacked after the historic coal strike of 1926 — and a former miner himself, his first brush with the Speaker of the House of Commons was in 1984 when he dubbed the leader of a group of Labour defectors a “pompous sod” and was ordered out of the chamber when he agreed to withdraw only the word “pompous.” In 1992, he incurred another suspension for describing the then Conservative agriculture minister as “a little squirt” and “a slimy wart on Margaret Thatcher’s nose.”
Skinner’s working-class constituents, many of them former coal-miners or the sons and daughters of miners, have been relentlessly behind their pugnacious tribune with the snappy bark, and they have been loyal to the Labour Party. The closure of local collieries by Conservative governments in the 1980s and 1990s only deepened Bolsover’s allegiance to Labour and to their MP, who took a pay cut himself in support of the miners during a ferocious 1984-85 miners’ strike.
But the times are changing and the country’s oldest serving MP may became next week a casualty of electoral war thanks to the scrambling of British politics by Brexit and a makeover of the Labour Party, which has become more focused on metropolitan issues pushed by progressive urban recruits, irritating older and more socially conservative traditional Labour voters.
Britain’s ruling Conservatives hope Boris Johnson can pull off what his predecessor at 10 Downing Street, Theresa May, failed to do in a snap election 18 months ago. Their hope is that Johnson will breach the Labour Party’s so-called northern red wall,’ once thought to be impregnable, by persuading anti-European Union northern working-class voters to defect to the class-enemy Conservatives to “deliver Brexit.”
Skinner’s constituency is one brick in that wall and on the streets of Bolsover in the north east of the county of Derbyshire amid rolling hills, the talk is the December 12 general election may mark the end of the long-serving lawmaker’s political career. Locals say while they still admire their local MP, who’s been unable to campaign personally because of recent hip-replacement surgery, Brexit is driving them away from a Labour Party, which wants to hold a second Brexit referendum, if it wins power.
Bolsover voted 70 percent to Leave the EU in the 2016 referendum and because of that high proportion of pro-Brexit voters, the seat is a key target for the Conservatives. On a cold, breezy day when VOA visited the town center, which has the feel of left-behind desperation about it with boarded-up shops, shuttered pubs, neglected terrace houses and shabby cheap takeaways, it wasn’t difficult to find locals planning to switch their votes to either the Conservatives or the newly-minted Brexit Party of Nigel Farage.
One former miner, Dave Michaels, a stocky 65-year-old wearing a flat cap, said, “I’ve been Labour all my life, as was my father, and I don’t like Johnson, don’t trust the man, but I think he’ll get us out of the EU and stop all the dithering.” He voiced annoyance at the influx of eastern European migrants to staff new warehouses and online retail distribution centers. Locals complain migration has altered the social cohesion of this corner of Derbyshire and strained already under-resourced public services.
Others expressed similar sentiments, suggesting that Skinner’s 5,000 majority may well collapse next week, adding to a possible seismic change in British politics that could see Labour and the Liberal Democrats snatch traditional Conservative seats in the pro-EU south of England and the commuter belt around London, but lose heartland seats of their own in the north, midlands and southwest of the country.
The Conservatives’ assault on the “red wall” will make or break Johnson’s dream of securing a parliamentary majority and dictate whether Britain leaves the European Union or not.
Daphne, a 52-year-old, who’d just finished shopping in a butcher’s shop, said she’ll be voting for Skinner’s Conservative rival Mark Fletcher. The mother of two grown up daughters, Lewis says she remains grateful to Skinner for all he’s done in the past, but he is “long in the tooth” and it is time for a change. “The Conservatives seem to have a goal,” she says.
The 34-year-old Fletcher, the grandson himself of a miner who was educated at state schools before heading to Cambridge University, says locals “want to get Brexit done and the Labour party has lost its way.” He’s convinced he can win Bolsover and that the Brexit Party won’t deny him victory by splitting the Leave vote. He is buoyed by a seat-by-seat opinion survey last week produced by the YouGov polling agency that predicted he will win the seat on December 12 with 42 percent of the vote, with Labour trailing 38 percent and the Brexit Party picking up 12 percent.
But the remaining days will be crucial before voting — in Bolsover, as well as in 49 other Labour seats in Wales, the midlands and northern England targeted by the Conservatives. At the last general election there were hints the ‘red wall’ isn’t as strong as Labour strategists suppose — two of Bolsover’s neighboring constituencies, North East Derbyshire and Mansfield, defected to the Conservative camp.
The Labour activists are hitting the doorsteps hard in the northern constituencies, though, trawling residual party support. And while the Conservatives are doing well when it comes to the issue of Brexit, they are on the back foot when it comes to public-service issues, and especially in regards to the under-staffed and under-funded National Health Service.
But Brexit isn’t Labour’s only problem in the north in what commentators describe as a “hold-your-nose election.” Johnson and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, seen widely as the most far-left leader the party has ever had, are vying in the unpopularity stakes, and according to opinion polls neither are trusted by voters. Johnson is the most disliked new prime minister in the modern history of opinion polling, while Corbyn is the most disliked leader of the opposition.
General election victory or defeat may come down to who is disliked the most.