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?