Could NHS issues trump Brexit in marginal Thurrock?

Peter Apps

For Labour parliamentary candidate John Kent and his team in Thurrock, it has been a two-year election campaign. In 2017, Conservative Jackie Doyle-Price saw her majority drop to 345, from 536 two years earlier. The local party has been out almost every weekend since to further close the gap and win over as many new voters as they can. The extent of their success will be a bellwether for the wider national picture.

How well Labour does this year will depend heavily on how well it can shore up its vote in predominantly working-class Brexit voting areas. For all the attention on the northern and Midlands ‘Red Wall’ constituencies, this will also affect a number of marginals in South East and Eastern regions.

As well as Thurrock, they include Colchester, Portsmouth North and South – the latter a somewhat unexpected Labour win two years ago – and the trio of Medway constituencies in north Kent. Most were part of previous Labour landslides, and would be needed for another. Few expect that kind of result now, but with more voters than anyone can remember saying they remain undecided, the margin between an outright Tory victory and a Labour-dominated hung parliament could be incredibly tight.

As polling day nears, campaigners – both experienced local activists, and the small army of volunteers arriving from elsewhere – are noticing a very definite trend. The topic of Brexit comes up less often on the doorsteps, while local residents are keenly aware and concerned about the crisis in local services.

“It’s a completely different race to 2017,” says Kent, pausing briefly in the party’s Tilbury office. In 2015, Thurrock was amongst the closest ever three-way marginal, with Conservatives, Labour and UKIP scoring within 1,000 votes of each other. But the UKIP vote dropped a third in 2017 – and this time, with a deal between the Brexit Party and the Tories, the real question is where their 10,112 votes will go.

Some, unquestionably, will go Conservative – on some streets I knocked on Monday, the Tory vote looked to be holding up relatively well. But other UKIP voters are returning to Labour and many – perhaps as many as half, some suspect – may just not vote at all. Frustration with politicians in general, as elsewhere, is at an all-time high. And for all the Conservative focus on “getting Brexit done”, it is the public sector spending cuts that are already having the most visible effect on people’s lives.

Demographic shifts may help. The area has huge swathes of new housing, and the expansion of the London oyster card zone to Grays brings a new London commuting population often already Labour-inclined. Such new arrivals, however, further increase pressure on services.

Former council chief Kent reels off what that means. Thurrock has 30 too few GPs, he says, and getting appointments is becoming ever harder. This will be significantly worsened by the planned closure of Orsett Hospital. Two police stations have already shut, and recorded crime in the area jumped 40% last year – partly the result of a change in measuring systems, but also a sign of real deterioration.

The challenge now is to persuade voters that Labour can fix that. Volunteers have come in from Tower Hamlets and other East London constituencies, as well as further afield. One, who has flown back from running her own tech company in San Francisco to fight for the area in which she grew up, says 2019 is the most important election of her lifetime.

Last Saturday, well over 100 activists – some traveling considerable distances – hit Thurrock’s streets. They included members of #NursesForRealChange, a grassroots group of dozens of nurses set up by Vauxhall nurse and party member Danielle Tiplady. Organising events as far afield as Sheffield, Lincoln, Battersea and Peterborough, they have made a major and much-needed splash in the final weeks of the campaign.

“Thurrock was amazing,” says Tiplady as she heads for an overnight shift at a central London hospital, where she says she worries for her patients continuously amid deteriorating service. “People trust nurses, and we hope that by getting out on doorsteps we are really putting the NHS crisis front and centre.”

Whether that will be enough to win this time round may be decided only in the last couple of days – and Thurrock wants all the support it can get. But regardless of the outcome, Kent and his team will be out campaigning through 2020.

“We should never have lost here in 2010,” he said, adding that too many Thurrock voters felt the Labour Party have been taking them for granted. “We won’t make that mistake again. We are going to crack it here – if not this time, then definitely the next.”

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