Labour and Tory candidates go head-to-head in the battle for marginal seats

'We're street fighters': MPs with the smallest majorities face battle to retain their seats

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Indy Politics

Bury North is a seat that encapsulates the extremes expected in one of the UK’s tightest marginals – held by the Conservatives since 2010, MP David Nuttall has a majority of just 378 votes.

Sixteen per cent of its population live in the affluent towns of Tottington and Ramsbottom, with higher than average wages and the majority of residents employed in professional or technical occupations. Whereas Bury, is one of the most deprived areas of the country in terms of both income and unemployment.

It's hard not to notice how drastic the divides are in the area – slick new developments seem to fill in the holes between dilapidated former factories and long-neglected council estates. 

Bury’s proximity to Manchester has created a perfect work base for city commuters, particularly with investment in the Metrolink. Nevertheless the town's identity is tied to Bury Market, a stoically English marketplace attracting visitors from around the north west with its shouty meat and fish hall and Bury black pudding stalls.

“This place won’t last much longer” declares Jerome, 50, who is a pet shop owner in the market. He points to a stall opposite his, which is selling mobile phone accessories. “That stall there, the owner retired last year and he’d been at that stall for 40 years. It's had 4 different tenants since then. These aren’t big businesses – it's people’s livelihoods.”

Vote Leave materials still linger - on the window of an in-market barbers there remains a now-infamous “We send the EU £350 million a week lets fund our NHS instead” poster proudly on display. Around 55 per cent of voters backed Leave in the referendum. 

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Bury Market is famous in Greater Manchester for its black pudding (Megan Townsend)

The Greater Manchester area received £136m in EU investment between 2007 and 2013. But for those working day by day next to emptying market stalls, the increasing pressure put on them by globalisation is an all too real concern.

Roger and Barbara, both in their sixties and have been running a DIY supplies shop within the market for 35 years, have decided to vote Conservative this time around following a change from Labour to UKIP in 2015. “We really like Theresa May. We’re putting our faith in her. We need to get immigration down and she’s the only one who’s going to do it really.”

However in an area where 10 per cent of the population are self employed, the Conservative manifesto hasn't proven overwhelmingly popular. Many stall owners expressed concerns for potential hikes in national insurance.

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Roger and Barbara have chosen to vote Conservative in this election – despite never voting for them before (Megan Townsend)

“For small businesses the Conservatives don’t do anything, they are putting the rates up, putting up national insurance” explains Mohammed, who owns a stall selling suitcases. “It's become like a second mortgage.”

“Everyone I know in the market, they are voting Labour. It's the overheads – we won’t be able to manage soon.”

Bury North’s position as a Conservative seat hasn't prevented debilitating cuts to its public services.The town's Labour council last year saw £12m in spending cuts causing councillors to accuse the Government of “clobbering” residents.

“People keep asking ‘when is the library going to be open again?’ It's open two days a week at the moment” says local councillor Sandra Walmsley. “The people here are aware of the effects cuts are having on their communities. It's tearing the heart out of the town”.

In recent polls, Bury’s support for the Conservatives has reduced, suggesting Labour candidate James Frith could win.

The Labour campaign in the area is centred around ejecting Mr Nuttall, a rebellious backbencher with a controversial record, voting in opposition to marriage equality, religious freedom and women's rights.

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Bury market (Megan Townsend)

It's understandable that the local Labour party would want to focus their campaign on Mr Frith, a young, enthusiastic, social-media-savvy candidate, bouncing back from narrow defeat, although there are clear risks of a repeat performance in fielding the same candidate.

“We’re opposing the cuts, the austerity," said Mr Frith. "More focus on small business owners.

“But I mostly think people are just sick of Nuttall. We always said ‘we don’t play dirty - but it didn't work did it? It didn't work in the referendum either. Might as well let everyone know what he’s like.”

For all of the “local” nature of the campaigning, the national picture feels like an elephant in the room. “There isn’t that much of an issue to be honest, people are really just concerned about the effect cuts are having on the area,” said one of the accompanying councillors.

While there has been opposition to Corbyn on the doorstep, campaigners believe the promises of the manifesto have cut through. 

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Bury North’s position as a Conservative seat hasn't prevented debilitating cuts to its public services (Megan Townsend)

"The reaction has been so positive when you mention policies,” said Ms Walmsley. “People are really seeing this as an election where they have a choice now, there’s a real opposition to the Tories. The biggest change on the doorstep is people aren’t going ‘ Well i’m not going to vote because it won’t matter’. Now they are voting one way or the other.”

In another north west marginal - Wirral West - the Conservaitves are on a full-blown offensive. The Merseyside seat, surrounded by red strongholds in Liverpool, has been held since 2015 by Labour MP Margaret Greenwood, who won by just 417 votes.

The Tory candidate is self-made local businessman Tony Cadeira, half-Portuguese and raised by a single parent on a council estate in St.Helens, one of poorest areas in Merseyside. “I’m not your traditional Tory” he states on approach to the party HQ - the Royal Liverpool golf course in Hoylake. “I can identify with anyone… I’m as comfortable going leafleting on the estates as I am here.”

He shows me the impressive view from the upstairs of the clubhouse, the Welsh coast visible from the edge of the Wirral Peninsula. I ask him what he thinks about his party’s chances in the area. “Well we are in Merseyside” he laughs. “You know what they say, you can stick a red rosette on a donkey round here. We’re focusing on the choice between Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May.”

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Labour campaigners pose for photographs after a leafleting session in Bury (Megan Townsend)

I press him more on his beliefs in his own leader, having publicly come out in support of her stance on Brexit despite admissions of his difficulty on choosing a side in the referendum.

“Wirral West was really split in the referendum – and so was I, as a businessman, I deplore the red-tape involved when it comes to Brussels, but I’m also the child of a Portuguese immigrant. My mum lives in Spain. I’m behind Theresa May and I’m ready to support her through these negotiations if she needs me.

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“We need to get in this quickly, support the rights of EU nationals to live here , and to ensure our citizens can remain in the EU – people aren’t bargaining chips.”

Mr Cadeira seems to stray away from his party lines further when I ask him his opinion on the now infamous May soundbite – no deal is better than a bad deal - “That's not going to happen” he shakes his head.

“This cliff edge isn’t going to happen, it's just a scare story. There’ll be posturing sure, but I think if it does happen politicians on both sides would have something to say about it.”

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Welsh coast visable from the Royal Liverpool Golf Course(Megan Townsend)

Having grown up just streets away from Mr Cadeira, I was curious at how someone who’d grown up in such a working-class Labour area, could have made their way to running as a Conservative candidate.

“During the miners strike, I worked out very quickly that individuals and companies and families knew better than a big clumsy government 200 miles away," he said. "I realised that what I believed in where the values of the Conservative party.

“It shouldn’t matter where you live - if you’ve got talent, and if you’ve got drive, if you’ve got ambition, we want to create the conditions for employment for businesses to start and to prosper. If we’ve got a strong and stable government we can do that. It's not just a soundbite… it really matters.”

When I meet Margaret Greenwood, the setting is very different. We’re in a pretty coffee shop in West Kirby, surrounded by older female Labour activists. Greenwood gained the seat in 2015 from Esther McVeigh in a campaign that exasperated locals and led to a barrage of online abuse toward both candidates.

Ms Greenwood comes from the activism side of the Labour party, and founded Defend Our NHS, and as I expected, her supporters are much more pro-Corbyn than those in Bury North.

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A map of polling stations seen at the Conservative party headquarters, Royal Liverpool Golf Course (Megan Townsend)

Despite Labour's growing popularity in the polls, marginals like Wirral West and Bury North will be key. It's smallest majority is in another north west seat - the City of Chester - which went Labour with just a 93 vote advantage.

Chris Matheson, who has been the MP for the past two years meets me on a bridge leading out of the city. He’s wearing a red tie and a grey suit, clutching a coffee and waving toward the traffic.

Chester once again reflects a conflict between the rural, more affluent North West – alongside industrial decline and cuts to public services.

“People around here, they know what is happening to them,” said Mr Matheson. "Every school in Chester has or is going to lose a member of staff. Everyone is sick and tired of austerity.”

I ask him how much time he's spent on the doorstep. “That's the thing, we already were doing that,” he said. "This is what the people in those safe seats, or the larger majorities...that's what they don’t understand. None of them. I’ve never stopped. I’ve been doing this for the past two years. We’re street fighters. We have been since day one.”

In such close marginal's like these, we’ll have to wait until polling day to see if the fight was enough for the Labour party.

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