‘Swearing should be kept down the mine’: How Lee Anderson’s migrant outburst turned off voters

The Tory deputy chair divided opinion with his ‘f*** off back to France’ remarks – but there was a rather more uniform feeling in his Nottinghamshire constituency, as Colin Drury reports

Sunday 13 August 2023 10:46 BST
Lee Anderson refuses to apologise for controversial comments about asylum seekers

Like his local MP Lee Anderson, John Hill once worked down Nottinghamshire’s mines.

“What you got told as a young man was that you swear as much as you want down the pit but you leave that language down there,” the 85-year-old said this week. “Up top – whether you’re with your family or in the pub or anywhere else – you spoke with civility.”

What if you didn’t? “You got labelled what you were: ignorant.”

Much has been said and written this week after Anderson – the Conservative deputy chairman and MP for Ashfield in Nottinghamshire – said migrants refusing to live on the Bibby Stockholm barge should “f*** off back to France”.

On social media and across Westminster, opinion appears to be somewhat split. While many have condemned the comments as vulgar and unbecoming of a person in public life – Dominic Grieve called them “foul” – plenty of others have welcomed the outburst as a politician speaking with refreshing candour. Anderson was simply “expressing the deep frustration of the British public,” said immigration minister Robert Jenrick.

Yet in Ashfield itself this weekend, there appeared to be a rather more uniform feeling about their MP’s latest moment in the national spotlight: embarrassment.

“The man’s not fit to be in parliament,” said Hill, a retired lingerie factory owner, great-grandfather and lifelong floating voter. “Coming out with that sort of language – it reflects badly on all of us here. It’s shameful. How can anyone hear that and then think he’s anything other than ignorant?”

Anderson, it’s worth saying, should not be underestimated as a politician just because – as your nana might have said – he appears to need his mouth washing out with soap and water.

Lee Anderson became an MP in 2019 (PA)

A one-time Labour councillor, who went on to be a case worker for former Labour MP Gloria De Piero, Anderson became the first ever Tory MP to win this red-wall seat – a former pit area where an Amazon warehouse is now one of the biggest employers – at a general election. By tapping into both dissatisfaction that Brexit wasn’t getting done and general disillusionment about years of economic decline here, he managed to produce an astonishing 5,733 majority in his 2019 triumph.

Mr Anderson took nearly 40 per cent of the vote in Ashfield the 2019 election – overturning a very narrow Labour majority as part of the surge of support in the “red wall”. But polling experts expect him to lose the seat in 2024 if Labour’s large nation lead holds up. A MRP poll conducted by Opinium at the end of last year had Mr Anderson on course to be one of around 200 MPs set to be ousted.

Ashfield itself could be the very definition of what commentators mean when they talk of the red wall.

A former mining area, it had returned a Labour MP at every general election since its creation in 1955 before Anderson triumphed here in 2019. Its biggest town, Sutton-in-Ashfield – population 48,000 – is today dominated by a sprawling shopping centre where well-known value outlets – Bonmarche, Heron Frozen Foods, The Works – are neighboured by bargain stores, card shops, a Ladbrokes and a pawnbrokers. Outside, empty units are everywhere.

Sutton-in-Ashfield is the biggest town in Ashfield and is dominated by a sprawling shopping centre (Alan Heardman/Geograph/CC BY-SA 2.0)

His appeal, his supporters say, is in his willingness to say, unvarnished and unapologetically, what others are thinking.

Long before his latest discharge, he had made headlines for claiming a healthy meal could be made for 30p (earning him the nickname “30p Lee”); for calling for the death penalty to be reintroduced; and for refusing to watch England’s matches at Euro 2020 because the players took the knee in an anti-racism gesture.

Yet, if such bon mots have made him a favourite of the Conservative grassroots, there is a sense they may just be wearing a touch thin here in Ashfield.

“You only ever see him when he’s saying something stupid,” said Andy Birks, who runs Colledges Butchers in the Idlewells Shopping Centre in Sutton-in-Ashfield. “There’s a lot of people round here who probably agree with [the sentiment of] what he said and have probably said the exact same thing themselves but that doesn’t mean you want your politicians talking like that. This is someone you’re supposed to be able to look up to.”

Would he vote for him? “I’ll probably not vote for anyone but I will say this: if someone came in here and started using that language, they’d be told to leave. Or, If my son came out with it, he’d be getting a clip round the ear.”

For Helen-Ann Smith, the comments were further proof that Anderson is all soundbite and no substance.

As a councillor on Ashfield District Council and an assistant at a children’s play centre, the 35-year-old is constantly hearing people’s opinions.

And on their MP? “I think people are asking what he’s done in four years,” she said. “And, other than make all these ridiculous comments, the answer is not much.”

She herself is a member of the hyper-local Ashfield Independents party, which currently runs the authority. “At the local elections, the Tories put Lee Anderson front and centre of all their literature,” she said. “And they’ve now lost all but two seats, which I think says a lot.”

Her council colleague Matthew Relf agrees.

Matthew Relf (Colin Drury)

“There’s an awful lot of people who feel that politicians are always couching their language and don’t speak their mind enough,” he said. “And I think some people took to Lee because he was very different in that respect. But when you start effing and blinding about a serious matter like this – it loses people.”

Some support remains for Anderson here, it should be said.

A local business owner reckoned the MP was simply addressing an issue that many people were angry about. “Why can’t they [immigrants] stay on that barge anyway?” she asked. “They came here on dangerous small boats so what’s wrong with a safe big boat?”

She asked not to be named – for fear her family might think she was defending fruity language.

Tory councillor Dawn Justice also offered support for Anderson. She’d just got back from holiday – from France ironically – and hadn’t heard the outburst so, no, she wouldn’t be commenting on that. But, hang on, she would certainly say that he was very popular on the doorstep.

“Whenever I have been canvassing with him, he always gets a positive response,” she said. “He connects with voters.”

Not all of them, though.

Back with John Hill, he pondered who he would vote for at the next election. “I normally make up my mind a few days before polling day,” he said. “But I can already tell you it won’t be him.”

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