General Election 2019: The view from a marginal seat

Patrick Burns
Political editor, Midlands

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Newcastle-under-LymeImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Newcastle-under-Lyme is one of the UK's most marginal seats

N-u-L by mouth

Everybody's talking politics these days.

Certainly in the North Staffordshire market town of Newcastle-under-Lyme they are. "What's going to happen with Brexit?" "Haven't we already voted to leave the EU?" "Isn't it really the Health Service that matters the most?" "We need new jobs here but where are they to come from?"

Normally, I'm the one asking the questions. But this time a steady procession of people want to know my views on the state of the affairs, with four weeks to go to polling in this December general election, the like of which we haven't seen for almost a century.

"Don't they know I'd had my own opinions surgically removed when I joined the BBC?" I wonder.

I have come to Newcastle because it's one of our most marginal seats: Labour have a majority of only 30 to defend. What's more, it's a classic example of the sort of place the Conservatives are targeting in pursuit of a Commons majority: won by Labour last time in a Leave-voting area. If the Tories can't win here, where can they win?

But this place, like so many others in the Midlands, is not the traditional two-party affair right now. The Brexit Party may be be standing-down in seats won by the Conservatives two years ago, but this is one of those Labour-held seats where the number-crunchers calculate the Conservatives could be hardest-hit by a Brexit Party challenge in the very places they most need to capture.

On the Remain side, the Liberal Democrats could cause collateral damage to both of the largest parties. Remember 30% voted to Remain in the EU even in a Leave-supporting town like this.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The market at Newcastle-under-Lyme Guildhall

In the market for votes

My other big reason for coming to Newcastle is that it's Market Day. You can imagine how it looks in my mind's eye: a bustling vibrant community of colourful stalls overflowing with fruit and vegatables, draped curtain material and festooned with clothes and peopled by jolly traders shouting their wares to a chorus of "m'ducks" and a general buzz of cheerful chatter and laughter.

In the event the mood is distinctly subdued. For a start, barely half the stalls are occupied. "You can see for yourself", people tell me, "there's not much going on here". Maybe that's what this election should be all about: the places which feel, as the saying goes, "left behind".

When the time finally comes for me to start asking the questions, I am keen to establish if Brexit is indeed the defining issue, as many Tories and Lib Dems imagine. Or are Labour gaining traction with their concentration on the public services, especially the health service?

There is nothing scientific about this, but here comes a broadly representative sample of the opinions I am hearing.

Predominantly, yes, it's Brexit: "Didn't we vote three years ago? Why aren't they listening?". Also, the related issue of immigration, the subject of sharp exchanges between the two biggest parties: "We can't take any more. We must control our borders." But then one young man tells me he is half-Spanish, so he doesn't like Brexit at all.

There is no shortage of other concerns, though. Two young student nurses are extremely anxious about the funding of the NHS, despite the current "bidding war" between the parties. While others point towards the boarded-up shop fronts and worry about the local economy.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The centre of Newcastle-under-Lyme

Sunday Politics Midlands

My time in Newcastle has been well spent because it will help me to frame my conversations with our guests on our programme this weekend:

Craig Tracey is seeking a third term for the Conservatives in North Warwickshire, Jess Phillips is also bidding for a third victory for Labour in Birmingham Yardley; and Lee Dargue is standing for the Liberal Democrats in Birmingham Ladywood.

And I hope you can join us too, at the slightly later time of 10.15 on BBC One and BBC One HD this Sunday morning, 17th November 2019.