by Jonathan Todd
You wait an eternity for a female Cumbrian MP and then two seem set to come along at once. Lee Sherriff, Labour’s candidate in Carlisle, is regularly applauded in speeches by shadow ministers. Sue Hayman has more recently been selected by Labour to fight Workington, a seat the party has invariably held throughout its history.
Polling by Lord Ashcroft suggests that Sherriff is set to turn around the 853 majority of Conservative MP John Stevenson. Iain Dale also calls the seat narrowly for Labour. Assuming Labour suffer no Cumbrian losses, this would give Labour at least four of the six Cumbrian seats.
Labour faces tougher fights in Westmorland and Lonsdale, where Tim Farron defends a majority of over 12,000 for the Liberal Democrats, and Penrith and the Border, a Conservative citadel, granting Rory Stewart a majority of over 11,000. These seats have never been red and cover much of the Lake District National Park, which draws visitors from across the globe. The more Labour inclined seats have their charms but are less well travelled.
Stevenson is Carlisle’s first Conservative MP since Ronald Lewis won the seat back for Labour in 1964, the year Harold Wilson first became Prime Minister. In 1983, an unhappier general election year for Labour, the party’s commitment to unilateral nuclear disarmament allowed Cecil Franks, the Conservative candidate in Barrow and Furness, where the building of nuclear submarines has long been a major source of employment, to ask at every opportunity: “If Labour gets elected, what will the lads do on Monday?”
John Hutton defeated Franks for Labour in 1992, meaning that four of the six Cumbrian MPs again were Labour, but it took another five years for the government to become so too. If Sherriff were to win Carlisle, it might herald another period in which four of the six Cumbrian MPs are Labour but the government is not. Equally, Carlisle is the kind of seat to give Ed Miliband hope.
As average weekly earnings in Carlisle lag the average for Great Britain by around £120, it is a place where Labour’s cost of living focus is likely to have had resonance and decisions taken by the Tory-led government are unlikely to always have been well received. With diligent local campaigning, it should be possible to transfer this grievance with the government into support for Labour. A recent profile in the New Statesman indicates that Sherriff is providing such campaigning with aplomb.