COMMENT: Could Brexit divide turn Mansfield and Ashfield blue?

Theresa May at Linney, Mansfield
Theresa May at Linney, Mansfield

A week is a long time in politics, as the old saying goes, and Mansfield has just had a very long week of it.

There is another old saying that I will draw your attention to – You could pin a red rosette on a donkey in Mansfield and they’d vote for it.

Sir Alan Meale, Labour MP for Mansfield.

Sir Alan Meale, Labour MP for Mansfield.

And, in fairness, the same goes for neighbouring Ashfield - strong and proud working class communities, fiercely Labour, fiercely proud of their roots and their mining heritage.

Despite a rise in Lib Dem influence, up until 2015 anyway, Ashfield was seen as a safe bet to parachute Labour Party high-fliers into, first with Geoff Hoon and, since 2010, former GMTV journalist Gloria De Piero

Next month, Mansfield MP Sir Alan Meale may be celebrating his 30th year representing the town . . . or he may not, at least not if the Conservatives have anything to do with it.

And the Tories are certainly going for it in Mansfield, perhaps demonstrated most obviously by Prime Minister Theresa May’s stage-managed appearance in the town last week.

Election night in Ashfield at Festival Hall - Kirkby-in-Ashfield. Gloria De Piero Labour candidate.

Election night in Ashfield at Festival Hall - Kirkby-in-Ashfield. Gloria De Piero Labour candidate.

By town, what I actually mean is Linney’s – a large firm on the outskirts of town, bags of security and a compliant audience of staff,

We received notification of the visit the night before (Tuesday, May 10) under embargo – meaning that we were not allowed to reveal the visit until 3pm the following day.

I have been involved in many a media scrum before, but really nothing like this – both in terms of scale and media management.

We were escorted into the main factory where we found a few hundred employees waiting patiently in an orderly circle around a raised plinth – the whole scene surrounded by gantries full of camera crews from national broadcasters.

Then Mrs May swept in, accompanied by Mansfield Tory Party hopeful Ben Bradley.

There were no cheers when she arrived, rather a polite silence, and after Mrs May’s speech – which included the term ‘strong and stable’ quite a lot, and questions from staff – she left to polite applause.

My question to Mrs May, when I finally got a short audience was: “Mrs May, Mansfield is a Labour heartland, a former mining community full of people with very long memories. Why are the Conservatives suddenly so confident that they can turn the constituency blue?”

If the visit had been in Ashfield I’d have asked pretty much the same question.

Her reply:

“I never predict election results but the people of this country see a very important choice that needs to be made. “The majority of people decided that the UK should leave the EU and we are the only party that will deliver on the Brexit vote and not to see the other options available.

“It’s important that we have support and backup when people need that support, but if we are going to help people in life to get a job and provide for a family and have their own home, then we need to ensure that we have a strong economy. It’s about getting the Brexit deal right and to trade more effectively with the rest of the world.”

So, Brexit then!

{ Prime Minister Theresa May ‘hopes Brexit feeling will turn Mansfield blue’|}

They’ve tapped into something – cynical as it is, but then that’s politics, and no doubt the Conservatives have similar optimism for Ashfield.

Our sitting MP’s both fiercely campaigned Remain, while the public had a different view - with 70.9 per cent of Mansfield residents and 69.8 per cent of Ashfield residents voting Leave.

And the Tories have certainly gone for it – a front page advert in your Chad, to the outrage of many readers; a campaign shop in Mansfield town centre; party chairman Patrick McLoughlin and Tory titan Ken Clarke launching Ben Bradley’s campaign; Bradley himself, wheeled out as a bright, young, ‘local’ candidate – even though he’s from Hucknall.

They’ve tapped into Labour Party division.

Much of the traditional Labour voters in Mansfield and Ashfield are fiercely anti-Corbyn, many saying they won’t vote for the party with him as the leader.

UKiP also appears to be collapsing, the Tories no doubt hopeful of picking up extra votes there.

Then there’s the sitting MPs – Gloria De Piero, often criticised for being isolated from the constituency; Sir Alan Meale criticised for being out of touch with the town, and frequently absent.

In 1964, Ken Clarke cut his parliamentary teeth in Mansfield, failing to turn-over the constituency that has been Labour since the 1920s. So can Ben Bradley do what Ken Clarke couldn’t?

Or Ashfield Tory candidate Tony Harper, for that matter?

They are courting the affection of communities still living with the consequences of the Miners’ Strike, after all.

Pictured: From Top, Theresa May speaking to staff at Linney in Mansfield last week, Sir Alan Meale and Gloria De Piero.