Election 2015 – one year to go: Better red without Ed? The Labour heartland that’s not happy with its lot

Our series on the election continues in Carlisle, a traditional Labour stronghold that turned Conservative in 2010 and is now feeling abandoned, reports Chris Green

Finding someone with something positive to say about Ed Miliband in Carlisle is harder than you might think.

“He looks smarmy, like a car salesman,” says one voter. “His brother would have been a much more natural choice,” says another. “He’s not dynamic.” “He could be tougher.” And so it goes on.

“A likeable enough character” is probably the nicest thing anyone says about the Labour leader – and those are the words of a 76-year-old woman who says she is “Labour through and through” and has voted for the party all her life.

It sounds like pretty depressing news for Ed Miliband’s party, which held Carlisle at every general election since 1964 but very narrowly lost it to the Conservatives in 2010.

The Tory majority here is just 853, and the Liberal Democrats are barely in the race. It is marginal constituencies in the north of England like Carlisle that Labour must win if Miliband has any hope of entering 10 Downing Street in a year’s time.

But while voters here might not have warmed to him yet, there is a silver lining for Ed: it’s not going to stop them voting for Labour. Why? They all say the same thing: the spiralling cost of living.

“Everything’s going up except salaries, which makes it hard to do anything,” says Gavin Lawes, 30, who voted Labour in 2010 and says he’ll “probably” do so again this time around.

Kieron Sutton, 24, is studying for a Masters in English. He voted Liberal Democrat last time, but Nick Clegg’s U-turn on increasing student tuition fees has pushed him into the Labour camp.

“I was a bit shocked when the Tories got in, but I do think it’ll go back to Labour this time,” he says. “The Government keeps saying things are getting better, but we’re not feeling it up here.” He adds that the cost of living is “definitely going up”, especially public transport.

One woman in her mid-40s, who declines to be named, says she used to vote Labour but is now “fed up” with politics and hasn’t decided who to vote for in 2015 yet.

“I think they forget we’re here,” she says of Westminster politicians. “London’s very well looked after, but not the North. There’s no recession in London but it’s hit us hard up here. Rural areas are totally ignored – you can be 15 miles outside Carlisle and have two buses a week.”

Both the incumbent Tory MP John Stevenson and his Labour challenger Lee Sherriff agree that Carlisle’s local economy – high employment, but low wages – means every small squeeze on living standards cuts deeper here than elsewhere. But the similarities end there.

Stevenson is a 50-year-old lawyer-turned-politician from Aberdeen, who since his narrow win in 2010 has spent his time trying to gain more of a foothold locally, organising skills fairs, working with local businesses and encouraging apprenticeships.

“My argument has always been if businesses prosper, Carlisle will prosper,”  he says.

It is a tactic that has no doubt played well with  local business leaders, but appears to have done little to increase his profile on the streets of the city. Many of the voters The Independent interviewed had never heard of their local MP.

But in fairness, voter apathy is a big problem for both parties here. Sherriff says that some of the naturally Labour-leaning people she speaks to are so disconnected with politics that they don’t even know their constituency is no longer a Labour one. “There are people in Carlisle that are shocked when they realise that it’s Tory,” she says.

Sherriff, 41, is a divorced mother of three who has lived in Carlisle since she was 10. She says she realised as a teenager that what she believed in was “basically socialism”,  but she only joined Labour  in May 2010.

“As soon as the Coalition was formed, my heart sank, and I realised that instead of sitting there shouting at the TV and discussing it with friends I need to do something,” she says.

Her rapid political rise is mirrored by her younger sister Paula, who joined Labour at the same time and has been selected as the party’s candidate for the Dewsbury and Mirfield seat in west Yorkshire – which is also Tory-held.

Out canvassing in the Labour-friendly suburb of Belah, in the north of Carlisle, Sherriff says people appreciate the fact that she’s a local and “quite normal”. “People look at me and they don’t think: politician,” she adds.

On the doorstep, the  party message is met either with great enthusiasm or utter indifference. While some immediately recognise Sherriff, greet her warmly and say she has “nothing  to worry about”, others are not  so positive.

One man says he voted Labour for years. So who will he back in 2015? “The way I feel now, probably nobody.” He does not elaborate on why, but another man does. “I used to vote, but not any more. I think they’re all a load of thieves.”

Back in his constituency office in central Carlisle, John Stevenson is upbeat. After doing “better than the party expected us to” in 2010, he says the party’s high  command in Westminster is taking more notice of northern constituencies like his.

“The support we’re getting from central office is much, much better than it was pre-2010,” he says. “There’s a recognition that this is the battleground,” he says. “And from Labour’s perspective it must also be seen as the battleground. The seats like this will determine who forms the next government.”

But he admits that breaking the natural affinity that people in the north of England feel with Labour is a huge issue  for the Tories.

“The problem for my party in the North is more about perception. I often speak to people, and you talk about the policies, and they’re all very supportive of them, and then you say ‘How’re you going to vote?’ and they say ‘Oh, we vote Labour’.”

In the neutral ground of the city centre, the Tories’ problem is bluntly encapsulated by a Labour-supporting pensioner: “We all know they all come from the Eton crew. We’re northerners and we don’t hold by it.”

The question is: with Ed Miliband as leader – or perhaps despite him – will they hold by Labour?

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Ramsay Bolton in Game of Thrones
tvSeries 5, Episode 3 review
News
peoplePair enliven the Emirates bore-draw
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband (R) and Boris Johnson, mayor of London, talk on the Andrew Marr show in London April 26
General electionAndrew Marr forced to intervene as Boris and Miliband clash on TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
2015 General Election
May2015

Poll of Polls

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Hotel Reception Manager

£18750 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Hotel in Chadderton is a popular ch...

Recruitment Genius: Designer

£32969 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is going through a period o...

Recruitment Genius: Data Engineer

£35000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Data Engineer is required to ...

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence