The young female candidate at the heart of the Tories’ battle to win Labour’s heartland
If you were to picture a Tory seat, Bishop Auckland would not be it. Next to the town hall sits the Mining Gallery, a collection of artworks depicting the areas long history of coal extraction.
Its extraordinarily long high street is, like many across the country, struggling, while the rows of two-up two-down terraces behind it speak to a long working-class history. On a brisk day in October, the smell of burning coal drifts through the streets.
The constituency also covers a large rural area, with a smattering of affluent villages and breathtaking views across the North Pennines. Yet a majority of farmers here are tenants to a handful of landowners. Significant portions of it are in the top 10 or 30 per cent of the most deprived in the country.
As you might expect, then, in its 134-year history, the constituency has never been represented by a Conservative MP. Yet in 2017, the party came within 502 votes of Labour
If after the next election there is not a Tory MP for Bishop Auckland, then it’s unlikely there will be Tory prime minister either.
This is a top target seat for the Conservatives and will be a bellwether for the success or failure of Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings’ project to transform the Conservatives, through Brexit, into the party of the working classes.
Success will mean dozens of seats like Bishop Auckland – Leave-voting, working-class Labour strongholds – falling into the blue column. Such a strategy won’t just change the politics of the party, it will overhaul its parliamentary cohort too.
Tasked with victory in this crucial seat is Dehenna Davison, who, at first glance, appears as likely to be a Tory as the constituency she wishes to represent.
A 26-year-old, working-class woman from Sheffield whose mother had never even voted until she dragged her to a polling station after discovering politics at 16, Ms Davison is the physical embodiment of the Johnson-Cummings vision.
Her hopes appear to rest on two factors. Brexit and the deep disillusionment with the status quo that fueled it.
Paul Davison (no relation) runs The Hut, a small cafe outside the shopping centre. “We have the same problems as most market towns”, he says, before reeling off a list of issues including drugs, police numbers, the high street’s struggles and gambling.
CREDIT: MARK PINDER
But what rankles most is the lack of change and the apparent paucity of interest from those meant to represent the town. “We feel very let down by Labour”, he says and of the current MP: “Helen Goodman is a waste of space.”
That might seem odd when there has been a Conservative in Downing Street for the past nine years, but much of the dissatisfaction is locally sourced. “We feel we’re getting ignored for other places in the county,” says Mr Davison. Politics in the town is “a lot of talk and a lot of waste”, with no accountability he says.
As Ms Davison puts it: “money for County Durham seems to all end up in Durham”.
Indeed, complaints about spending and decision making being monopolised by the city are frequent. Sam Zair, a longtime independent councillor and community stalwart, brings up decisions over the local hospital, a particular local grievance which never seems to be far away in any conversation.
Built on a PFI contract under the Blair government, its services have been stripped away one by one and transferred to facilities elsewhere in the county, with more on the line. The closure of the A&E a decade ago, supported by the Labour council, still riles many, including Mr Zair.
“This constituency has been under Labour rule for the past 80 years or so … and nothing has changed” says Mr Zair.
To win the seat, Ms Davison will need to win rural votes too.
Nestled alongside the River Tees in the North Pennines sits Middleton-in-Teesdale. In a large space above the local Co-Op is the Upper Teesdale Agricultural Support Services (Utass), set up after a string of suicides during the BSE crisis hammered the close-knit farming community.
With the sound of the dementia support sing-along drifting in from the next room, Robert Danby and Richard Betton expound on the challenges the rural community faces. Chief among them are the digitisation of farming, healthcare for an ageing and isolated population, transport and the uncertainty created by Brexit.
CREDIT: MARK PINDER
“If you want to go by bus to Bishop Auckland for 9 o’clock in the morning, you’ve got to set off the previous evening” points out Mr Danby. Meanwhile, much of the form-filling required of farmers has gone online, but with such poor connectivity in the dale, one of Utass’s key services is the use of its computers.
The prospect of continued uncertainty and a possible no-deal in winter is a genuine worry for Mr Betton, who farms nearby. If farmers can’t sell livestock as the cold weather sets and find their fields overstocked, it would be “the ultimate worst case”. And beyond the short term, quite what Westminster plans to do with agricultural subsidies is another worry.
The early signs of the Tory manifesto appear tailored precisely for seats such as Bishop Auckland. The main town has already been granted £25 million from the new Towns Fund, including for its high street.
The approval of Northern Powerhouse Rail might help with Mr Zair’s protest that transport planners need to realise “there’s life beyond Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds!” The promise of more police was given a cautious welcome by locals sceptical of how many more bobbies they’ll actually see.
Meanwhile, the PM’s pledge of billions more for the rollout of full-fibre broadband to rural areas and tens of millions to revitalise bus routes and create “on-demand” services could’ve been written specifically for Teesdale.
But splashing the cash may well come second to Brexit if the area is to turn blue. Bishop Auckland voted 61 per cent for Leave and almost everyone The Sunday Telegraph spoke to said they simply wanted Brexit over with, whatever form it took.
Andy Jackson, a local businessman and Conservative voter shares the usual complains about Ms Goodman – “what has she ever done for the town” – but points out that it’s Brexit that’s changing the Tories’ fortunes. “Brexit is a massive breaking point for a majority of people” he says, and points to Ms Goodman’s voting record. “There’s a lot of [Leave voters] that have always voted Labour … and their representative is sticking two fingers up at them, effectively”.
But could the Tories actually win in this most Labour of seats? At least one resident thinks the game is up. “Labour’s gone up here. It’s gone”, says Mr Davison outside The Hut. “It’s just the diehards left. All that union stuff is gone”. The Prime Minister will be hoping he’s right.
Bishop Auckland constituency vote results
Labour vote majority in the past three general elections
2016 EU referendum vote share results
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