“My mum has bipolar. She’s very much at the top end of the spectrum, and she’s in hospital quite a lot. I’ve seen the destruction of mental health services over the years,” Colchester candidate Tina McKay tells me. She is explaining why she decided to join the Labour Party and when – which means talking me through her thoughts on the night of the 2015 general election. “At about half six in the morning, I really just panicked. What’s going to happen to society? What’s going to happen to my mum? And then I thought… what’s going to happen to everybody who has a mental illness and doesn’t have me fighting for them?”
I was in Colchester over the weekend anyway, so thought I’d take the opportunity to do some canvassing and meet the local candidate. I checked out Momentum’s mycampaignmap.com and was surprised to find that Colchester Labour had three door-knocking sessions being held on the Sunday. The Essex constituency is now considered a target marginal for Labour – but three in a day is still impressive. Although the party came a fairly close second in 2017, missing out by 5,677 votes, the seat has not been won by Labour since 1945 and the last time it came second was 1979.
It struck me when I briefly interviewed Tina after canvassing that my reason for being in Colchester on Sunday was not dissimilar to her reason for becoming active in the Labour Party. As I wrote about on LabourList, my partner’s father who is a paranoid schizophrenic attempted suicide by overdose at the start of the month. He was taken to Colchester Hospital, where the presumably understaffed ward didn’t keep an eye on him, which meant the next day he absconded and was found on the railway tracks in front of a moving train. Fortunately, the police managed to talk him down. The list of complaints about the care he has received since then is endless. He is currently sectioned in a mental health clinic next door, where they are not offering talking therapy – just medication and confinement.
Tina McKay is on the Labour left. Before 2015, she had always “loved the history of the Labour Party, the principles, how that party was formed”, but the Iraq war put her off from voting. “I was just disillusioned, all that stuff that you hear on the doorstep. At the same time, though, I was the kind of person who sat up every night to watch the election results.” And that’s how she came to eventually stand as a parliamentary candidate. On the night of the 2015 election, when the Tories unexpectedly won a majority, she says: “I was shitting myself. I was just like, fuck, oh my god… I asked myself: Tina are you going to sit being an armchair politician, shouting at the TV, or are you gonna be part of the fight back? So I joined the Labour Party that morning.”
The local campaign strategy being used by Colchester activists is typically Corbynite. They are using an all-voter selection, which means not excluding repeated Tory voters or anyone who could be written off as a no-hoper. Their approach is to be expected at this early stage of the campaign. But the organisers are also emphasising to volunteers that their chats with locals should by no means be rushed – in fact, they should go on for as long as possible. The aim is to engage in ‘active listening’ and ‘deep conversations’.
As a candidate on the doorstep, Tina is impressive – particularly friendly and enthusiastic. She has a personal advantage, too. Colchester is home to a British army base at the heart of the town, and it came as no surprise that one resident during our canvassing session said he was minded to vote against Labour because he thought Jeremy Corbyn didn’t support the military. Luckily, the Labour candidate counts herself as a member of the military community: her husband is in the army, now working in the UK’s only military detention centre, which is in Colchester. Tina jokes: “I used to say on the doorstep ‘my husband is in the prison’. That didn’t go down very well. I was like, no, no, he works in it!”
Colchester will not be an easy win for Labour. The first person I canvassed was adamant that he wouldn’t vote Labour while Corbyn was leader, and he didn’t like the policies either. The second was an elderly lady who wasn’t voting Labour and didn’t want to talk about it. The third door brought cheer: enthusiastic Labour voters. The fourth was worrying again: an NHS worker who was flirting with the idea of voting Lib Dem because she wants Brexit resolved quickly. But her concerns about the NHS and learning about Labour’s ‘get Brexit done in six months’ policy made her lean away from Jo Swinson’s party by the end of the conversation. The next, a 19-year-old who said she didn’t know much about politics, promised to watch the leaders’ debate and concluded that she would probably vote Labour.
Persuasive campaigning is absolutely key in this kind of seat, where Labour did well in 2017 but had not historically been a real contender. The local activists say they are even flipping Tories, and it’s certainly true that there was a real mix of opinion on the one estate I visited, with many more voters than usual ready to talk at length and be convinced by a stranger knocking on their door. An optimistic and hard-working candidate will help, too. She’s a big admirer of Corbyn and the direction in which he’s taken the party, but of his local critics she says: “I acknowledge how people feel because it’s understandable. When you see negative press, it’s designed to make people feel disengaged, hopeless… We are the messengers who can cut through all that nonsense.” Taking a seat like Colchester is an incredibly tough ask, but there is no better way of trying to do it than this.