“Brexit is massive, but a lot of that is linked to lack of trust.” That was the message from Labour’s candidate in the target seat of Reading West when LabourList visited on a wet and windy Saturday afternoon. “A lot of it is: there was a vote and now there’s been this complete mess. Or there was a vote, and everyone’s been lied to.”
Labour’s challenger Rachel Eden is looking to oust Conservative Alok Sharma in the marginal seat. He has held the Berkshire constituency since 2005, but in 2017 Labour missed out by only 2,876 votes. It’s neither a particularly Leave nor Remain seat, as Rachel explains to me, though that doesn’t stop Brexit coming up frequently on the doorstep.
But trust in politics seems to be the real problem. It certainly seemed to be the key issue on the doorstep: I spoke to a police officer who said he wasn’t sure who to vote for, and told me “it seems to be which one can promise the most at the moment”. Another resident explained that you have to “take it all with a pinch of salt”, voicing deep scepticism about any party being able to deliver on its promises.
The lack of trust is something Rachel’s sell to locals picks up on. She tells constituents: “I’m going to be opening up an office right in the heart of the constituency that you can come to, which our current MP doesn’t really have… Come and find me. If I don’t do this, if I don’t vote to bring back nursing bursaries, or if I don’t give you a referendum – come and find me and ask me why I didn’t.” Rachel remarks to me: “People love that. People love the fact that I say you’re going to agree with me on maybe 80-90% of stuff – sometimes you’ll disagree with me, but feel free to get in touch.”
The pitch appears to be working. As we catch up after canvassing, Rachel explains that the last person she spoke to, a nurse, told her “all politicians are the same” and she was not going to vote. But, by the end of the conversation, she says the woman is “going to vote for me and she was going to get her husband to vote for me as well”.
Rachel also has a distinctly local message for residents. She has been a local councillor since 2010, she and her family live in Reading and she runs a local accountancy business in the town. These are all facts noted in the leaflets used by campaign volunteers. Two people I spoke to on the doorstep were impressed by her local credentials. One of them said: “I haven’t seen anything of our MP in years.”
Even among the activists, Rachel’s local credentials are important. “I’ve never voted Labour in my life,” one told me – one of the more bizarre things I’ve heard from people volunteering for the Labour Party. The Labour candidate informs me that the activist was initially voting for her only tactically but later told Rachel: “I looked into what you were saying locally – I realise your kids go to the school I’m a governor at, and that your policies are actually quite good, and I’m really excited about voting for you now.”
Rachel explains that this volunteer came from the People’s Vote campaign, and that over the past few weeks the campaign group had swung their support behind her. Its activists had started coming to campaign sessions, and she wasn’t about to start turning them away.
But there’s more to it, Rachel tells me. For many, tactical voting is a way into supporting Labour: “If people are starting to warm up to the idea of tactical voting, then they might actually open up to our policies as well, and realise that actually we’ve got a great manifesto… and so they’re not just thinking ‘what’s the least worst option?’ anymore, they’re actually excited.”
Rachel says a significant number of locals are telling her that they voted Green or Lib Dem in 2017 but opting for Labour this time. She even points to another one of the volunteers, telling me that the woman had previously canvassed for the Lib Dems. “And I actually think it’s really powerful – ‘well, I’ve never voted Labour before but now this time I’m voting Labour’ – for whatever reason.”
If the 4,020 votes cast for the Lib Dems and the Greens in 2017 come over to Labour in December, that could do the trick in Reading West. Rachel certainly seems to be drawing a lot of support from them. But persuading voters to put their trust in her, and trust that Labour can deliver on their pledges, will be crucial.