If you want to get off the train in this part of the Lake District, you have to tell the driver, and most people don’t bother. As the little two carriage convoy chunters between the flat wet sands and soft green hills, straight through request stop after request stop, the sheep in the fields can scarcely be bothered to incline their necks to find out what it is that has shattered the serenity of the morning, as we clatter up the tracks at 25 mph.
Though it’s not immediately clear who is to blame, Copeland and time have conspired to forget one another. If there is to be a historic by-election result here next week, it will be the kind of history they would appear to like around here – one that leaves no visible trace.
At least that’s what you think, right up until you see it. The towering fences ringed with barbed wire, the high chimneys set against the sea, the copper dome of the reactor: Sellafield. For all the lush pasture, the meandering lanes and summer ramblers, if Copeland could not smash atomic nuclei into one another it would cease to be, a certainty that’s clear from the moment anyone opens their mouth.
Take Martin for example, in his forties, who’s hopped on at Millom, on his way to work. I ask, where’s work? “Oh, I’m a contractor up at Sellafield.”
Later in the day, I’ll meet John, a beef farmer these days, “But I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, on the Windscale reactors.”
Then there’s Ian, who drives the school bus: “It’s easier than my last job. I used to work at Sellafield.”
And Keith too, Keith Harrison, the husband of the Conservative candidate, Trudy. “I’m a welder for Shepley Engineers,” he told me, while his wife was strolling round the local primary school for the benefit of the local TV cameras, standing diligently behind the Prime Minister as she grimaced at some seven year olds picking up plastic bees with Lego robots. “Shepley’s up at Sellafield. Everyone round here works at Sellafield.”
And that’s precisely why the Labour Party has a problem on its hands. After weeks of obfuscation on the issue, on 1 February Jeremy Corbyn finally committed to “new nuclear”, giving his backing to Moorside, a nuclear power plant that’s been in the offing here since 1980 but that no one has yet started building. It also won’t come online til 2024 at the earliest, even if it recovers from recent setbacks. But you don’t get to campaign against nuclear power and indeed nuclear weapons for three decades and not expect those views to carry a long half life. If Copeland’s residents don’t work at Sellafield, there’s a fair chance they’ll work down the Watney Channel at Barrow-in-Furness, building the Trident submarines that Corbyn wants to see carry nuclear missiles with no nuclear warheads.
Corbyn may suddenly be intensely relaxed about the splitting atom, but it has not unsplit his party. His name is radioactive up here, and the decay is clear to see. Next Thursday, Labour will contest two by-elections on the same day, both forced by resignations of their own candidates. In Stoke Central, Labour feels it has the measure of Paul Nuttall and Ukip. In Copeland, the mood music is extremely solemn.
Keith Harrison is leaning against the Prime Minister’s car, his wife not five yards away sporting a big blue rosette, as he explains how he “grew up Labour” and is “a member of a Labour union.”
“It’s frightening really,” he says. “You’ve got a Labour leader, people think he’s going to decommission nuclear. That’s thousands of people, coming into work and suddenly they’ve not got a job.”
Dave Scott runs Bootle Stores, the only shop in the tiny village of Bootle, where Trudy Harrison grew up. He’s a Scot who came here 36 years ago. “It’s a tourist area,” he says. “We’re in a National Park here, but everyone round is dependent on nuclear. That’s their livelihood. That’s the hope they have for their children.”
“A lot of people here would never vote for the Tories, so if they don’t want to vote Labour it might be Ukip and that split could save Labour.”
Rose Southward, a woman in her fifties hanging around for a brief glimpse of the Prime Minister, thinks the shopkeeper’s analysis is too complex.
“The reason people wouldn’t vote Labour is because of the leader. Look at the state of him. We’re farmers and he goes to work like we go to work.”
Rose is dressed in a lightly stained fleece, faded denim half-tucked into untied boots. She declines to be photographed – “Not in this state. You wouldn’t go and see a doctor who dresses like that would you. He goes around dressed like us.”
But there are further complexities. The Conservatives have a plan to close the maternity unit at the local hospital, West Cumberland and staff it only with midwives, leaving women whose labours take a turn for the worse an hour’s drive away from a doctor or an operating theatre. The local Labour Party are putting out a leaflet in the form of a letter from a local mother who lost a twin in childbirth, and who claims under the Conservatives plans, she’d have lost both.
It certainly helps that the Labour candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a volunteer ambulance driver who says she has “bluelighted down every road in the constituency” and loudly proclaims that she “cannot allow” the Conservatives to carry out their plans. Trudy Harrison opposes the plan too, of course, but that has forced her into the difficult position of opposing plans that the Prime Minister herself would not deny were real when she dropped in for 45 minutes on Wednesday.
John Southward, the beef farmer, is unimpressed that “the French ignore all these ridiculous regulations that we must obey”, but other than that, Brexit is rarely mentioned, even though they voted for it by a large margin.
Martin, the Sellafield commuter, is furious about London’s garden bridge. “£30m of public money. It’s 200 yards in one direction to the one bridge, and 300 yards to another. When the bridges flooded round here it’s a 70 mile round trip and nobody comes to fix them.”
I ask him whether that would affect how he would vote and he does something quite strange. “No it wouldn’t but this would,” he says, and he sits suddenly on the floor of a busy train and starts shouting. “‘I can’t find a seat! I can’t find a seat! Film me! Film me! I can’t find a seat!’ What’s that about?”
Certainly, the battle lines of the contest are nuclear versus the NHS, but cut across all that is Corbyn.
In 2015, Copeland returned Jamie Reed, one of the most promising young MPs in the party, but by a comparatively narrow margin of 2,500. Reed was born in Whitehaven, the town that dominates Copeland, a one time press officer at – you’ve guessed it – Sellafield. He was barely 18 months into the job when he decided his future lay elsewhere (back at Sellafield, naturally). This is a man who didn’t merely vote Labour, but stood for election for Labour. It will only require 1000 or so people with rather less commitment to the party to take the same view as Mr Reed for the Conservatives to steal it from Labour, and the virtually unheard of to happen. A by-election taken as an opportunity to give not the Government but the opposition a kicking. In normal times, that’s the sort of thing that might set off a reaction.
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