Campaign frontline: ‘Gentlemen versus players’ on the election campaign’s fiercest frontline

In a series of reports from the frontline, Uncut looks at what’s happening on the ground. Kevin Meagher visited City of Chester, to see the campaign in Britain’s most marginal constituency

As you drive in on the A56, the scale of Labour’s task becomes clear. ‘Welcome to Chester – International Heritage City’. This is a seat, it is fair to say, where many of the residents are not short of a bob or two.

Indeed, this is the most marginal constituency in the country, with Labour’s Chris Matheson, a former senior Unite official, holding the seat against Tory expectations in 2015 with a majority of just 93. It requires a swing of just 0.1% to fall to the Tories.

Labour’s Christine Russell first took City of Chester in the 1997 landslide, ousting the colourful Gyles Brandreth in the process. It remains a classic Labour/Tory marginal but has stayed red for two decades.

Synonymous with tourism, high-end retail and Hollyoaks, Chester may be outwardly prosperous it also has its fair share of struggling families too. 

Last year, the West Cheshire Poverty Truth Commission found some parts of the borough had a life expectancy gap of a decade and in-work poverty has grown by 40 per cent since 2004.

As I drive down into the city centre there are few election posters to be seen. A sign of the times, perhaps, with online campaigning increasingly coming to dominate elections. Still, all the posters I can see are for Matheson. 

His open-plan campaign office is a hive of activity. Perhaps the sole benefit of being a new MP trying to hold on to an ultra-marginal is that the campaigning instincts remain sharp. In just two years he has held 200 surgeries, written 10,000 letters to his constituents and made 377 contributions in Parliament. 

‘It’s like we’ve been in constant campaigning mode,’ he says. The local Tories feel ‘offended that we took the seat. They think it’s their right.’

He rattles off a list of campaigns he is involved in, including working with the local council, English Heritage and the Crown Estate to reopen Chester Castle as a tourist attraction which has been ‘dormant and unused’ for twenty years. (There is a page-lead story in the Chester Chronicle to that effect, but no mention of anything the Tories are doing).

Government education funding cuts are going down particularly badly on the doorstep, with a £2.3 million cut for local schools this year and £6.4 million planned for next year. It plays well for Labour and Matheson’s assiduous constituency work now sees his name come up on doorsteps with frequency.

Although the borough of Cheshire West and Chester voted to ‘Leave’ the EU last year, it did so by just 50.6 per cent, lower than the national average and the issue doesn’t appear to be playing here.

Despite the scale of their challenge, the local party volunteers are relaxed. They have been here before – written off as a Tory gain – only to defy expectations time and again. One of the best-organised local Labour parties in the North West, they know every inch of the seat and there is a palpable sense that they are in it to win it.

As I drive around the constituency there is noticeably little of the fanfare or atmosphere of Labour’s landslides of 1997 and 2001. I park up in a typical Chester side street – a row of tidy 1950s semis – and half a dozen Conservative activists walk past me. They have the cautious gait of reluctant street campaigners. Like trainee Mormons. 

A youngish man of about thirty leads the pack. He is dressed in a tweed jacket and resembles ‘Ralph’ from The Fast Show’s Ted and Ralph sketch. Behind him are a middle-aged couple emblazoned with over-sized blue rosettes. Keeping up the rear is a tall, elderly gent.

Only people out canvassing for a political party can look so ill at ease doing something as mundane as walking down a street. They simply don’t exude the infectious confidence you get when door-knocking in a successful campaign.

The Conservative candidate here is Will Gallagher, a former special adviser to Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, although Theresa May’s image dominates his campaign literature.

Harold Wilson once compared Alec Douglas-Home’s Tories to his Labour party as a case of ‘gentlemen versus players.’ It occurs to me this sums-up the tenor of the Chester campaign. 

The Labour team here are like the Welsh Guards at Rorke’s Drift, facing off against overwhelming odds. Can they hold the Tories in the most marginal seat in the country through a combination of experience, focus and effort? 

Nobody could be trying harder than Chris Matheson and troops.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Uncut

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5 Responses to “Campaign frontline: ‘Gentlemen versus players’ on the election campaign’s fiercest frontline”

  1. Ydoethur says:

    Gower is more marginal than Chester, with a mere 27 votes in it. Chester may be the most marginal in England or the most marginal held by Labour.

  2. Tafia says:

    Chester is a tribal City. It has two massive estates with large quantities of council and HA housing – Blacon and Lache, that are Labour strongholds plus a few smaller areas.

    It then has overwhelmingly Tory areas such as Westminster Park, Kingsway, Huntigdon, Mickle Trafford etc

    The ‘swing’ part is largely concentrated in four zones – Broughton, Hoole, Upton and Vicars Cross.

    In the 1997 campaign in Chester (which I took part in), most of Labour’s work took part in Hoole and Vicars Cross as they were seen as key to winning the seat.

  3. Tafia says:

    It’s also a City of stark contrasts. Where Labour may face a problemn is that it is becoming increasingly unaffordable to get housing there unless you qualify for social housing or are earning a very very good wage and can afford to buy.

    As a result, younger families in fairly normal jobs are leaving and moving across the border to nearby Wrecsam, Quuensferry, Llay and as far as Rhyl/Prestatyn/Landudno where housing is far cheaper to both buy and rent (by 50% and more) quality of life is better and the A55/A483 and excellent rail links make commuting for even relatively ordinary NLW jobs cheap, feasible and quick. Perversly, the ‘Right-To-Buy-ers” of decades past on what were the two massive council estates of Blacon and Lache are also cashing in, flogging their former council properties and moving to North Wales to seaside bungalows along the Costa Geriatrica. for less than a hundred grand, leaving them 150-250 grand (and more) cash surplus to play with.

    As a result what were rock-solid Labour areas in the City are undergoing a rapid demographic and socio-economic change (and I mean rapid). And what should be Labours upcoming next generation of voters is also moving out. In both cases predominantly to North Wales.

  4. Matt O'Halloran says:

    It wasn’t the Welsh Guards that fought at Rorke’s Drift, which was in 1879. The Welsh Guards did not form until 1915. The defenders were from the 24th Regiment of Foot, later the South Wales Borderers and now part of the Royal Regiment of Wales.

  5. Tafia says:

    Matt, Royal Regiment of Wales were amalgamated with the 23rd of Foot The Royal Welch Fusiliers (correct spelling of welch) a couple of years ago. The hybrid is now called the Royal Welsh.

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