In the 2017 general election, former British Army Royal Signals officer Sarah Church added more than 5,000 votes to the previous Labour share in South Swindon. Gaining half as many again this year would see her beat Conservative Justice Secretary Robert Buckland.
Sarah says that, for now, she’s not wasting time pondering her chances – as elsewhere in the country, many of the voters she has spoken to are still making up their minds. Having been campaigning almost constantly since the last election, she is spending long days knocking on doors and talking with constituents on anything they ask.
“If I get in, I’ll be the first female veteran in parliament,” she says. “My values have always been those of public service, and that’s what drives my politics. I’ve been having no nonsense conversations on the doors, including with former and serving service personnel, and it feels like we are getting somewhere.”
The party is fielding six former military candidates in this election: four ex-regulars and two ex-reservists. Several other candidates have close military links, including Colchester candidate Tina McKay whose husband is in the army. Other former military and military-associated councillors and activists have also been out campaigning – in part a measure of how strong this year’s manifesto is seen on both national defence and veterans affairs.
Almost a decade of Conservative cuts have seen the military shrink to its smallest in centuries, with years of below inflation pay increases and botched outsourcing fuelling a recruitment and retention crisis. Labour pledges to end that, spending a true 2% of gross domestic product on defence, buying British – including upcoming orders for Royal Fleet Auxiliary supply ships – where possible.
Labour is also promising a pay review, as well as a Police Federation-style representative body that will help tackle problems like poor housing and difficulties in accessing schools for military families.
Labour’s former military candidates:
- Sarah Church, South Swindon – former Royal Signals officer and campaigner against local service cuts
- Tim Corry, South West Surrey – former RAF Chinook pilot now flying for an airline
- Gareth Derrick, South East Cornwall – former Royal Navy Commodore and Plymouth councillor
- Dan Jarvis, Barnsley Central – former Parachute Regiment major
- Clive Lewis, Norwich South – former Army Reserve Rifles captain and combat camera team commander
- Paul Sweeney, Glasgow North East – former Royal Regiment of Scotland reservist
It’s not always an easy fight. But out campaigning this weekend in heavily military-populated Aldershot, activists reported voters were reading Labour campaign material and still apparently pondering their vote. It’s not hard to see why. Food bank usage in the town is going up by 20% a year, many of the recipients veterans, bringing with it real anger at politicians across the board and sometimes a new openness to voting Labour.
“Veterans make up 3.5% of the population, but when you include spouses it rises to almost 5%,” says Owen Pritchard, a former Royal Welsh Regiment south London councillor who has also been up campaigning in Barnsley for ex-paratrooper Dan Jarvis. “They are often concentrated in towns and areas in the regions we really need to win.”
It’s a similar position in South East Cornwall, where former Royal Navy Commodore and Plymouth councillor Gareth Derrick is standing in an area with significant pockets of former service personnel. The most senior officer to ever stand for the party, he has no problem making the case on doorsteps for the current leadership.
“They have heard a lot about Corbyn, much of it wrong, ” he says. “My approach is to explain that he’s a very different kind of politician with a thoughtful approach, one who has really changed the argument on what we need to do to fix the country. You can’t win everyone over, but I have definitely had some people who will be voting Labour for the first time in their lives.”
Sarah Church in Swindon says Shadow Defence Secretary Nia Griffith has been particularly important in winning over the military vote – and that veterans and serving personnel care about more than just defence.
“Nia Griffith is popular amongst the Armed Forces community she has interacted with because she listens,” she says. “The right-wing press have been doing a lot of work, and that has got through to a lot of soldiers and others, but plenty of people are still making up their minds. They know we need to fund the NHS and other services better. ”
It’s not just about winning over the current and former service vote. Working-class electorates in many of the places needed by Labour care about defence and patriotism alongside social justice. Standing against Jeremy Hunt in South West Surrey, former RAF Chinook pilot Tim Corry says his military background sometimes surprises constituents – but that he has been impressed himself by how the Labour message is sometimes cutting through.
“I’ve always been a Labour supporter, and I joined the party as soon as I left the military,” he says. “There is real suffering and hardship out there, even in leafy Surrey, and it’s really important to be making the case for the Labour Party.”