Outside Dudley town hall, bitter disappointment hung in the cold, damp air. “It’s just blow after blow after blow these days,” said Jackie Smith, who had paid £ 2. 50 to hearNigel Farage’svision for Britain. She and others who turned up ready to “Change Politics for Good” hadn’t been told that the rally was cancelled at a few hours’ notice after the Brexit party’s candidate unexpectedlypulled out of the race.
Perhaps it was just as well: going by the numbers milling around on Friday morning, it may have been a challenge to fill the rows of municipal purple chairs pictured on the town hall welcome poster. Rupert Lowe, who had been selected to fight the seat of Dudley North for the Brexit party, had announced the day before – just minutes before nominations closed – that “with a heavy heart” he was “putting country before party” in order not to split the pro-Leave vote in the West Midlands seat. Farage had been “very angry” with him,he told theExpress.
In this strange and unpredictable election campaign, it was the second shock to hit Dudley North in a week. Earlier,Ian Austin, who was the Labor MP for the constituency for 14 years until he quit the party in February, told the BBC that Jeremy Corbyn was “completely unfit” to be prime minister and that Labor voters should back Boris Johnson in next month’s election.
“If you’d told me I was going to do this, I’d never have believed it,” Austin said. “I’m not a fan of Boris Johnson, and I’m not a Conservative. I disagree with loads of things. But only two people can be prime minister on 13 December: Johnson or Corbyn . I didn’t want this to be the choice, but it is. ”Many former colleagues were furious with him, he added, but some agreed, although they would not say so in public.
Dudley North is one of the most marginal constituencies in the UK; Austin won by 22 votes in 2017. A year earlier, 71% voted to leave the EU. The combination of a tiny majority and strong pro-Brexit opinion has propelled this once safe Labor seat into the Conservatives ’list of top targets. With the Brexit party’s abrupt exit, and negligible support for the Lib Dems, Dudley North is a two-horse race.
Until about half a century ago, the town was one of the most prosperous in Britain, with well-paid, secure jobs available in heavy industry for all who wanted them. Now the Round Oak steelworks, which employed thousands in its heyday, has been redeveloped as an out-of-town shopping center, and the derelict Freightliner terminal is to be the site of a new institute of technology and digital skills.
“There has been a big shift from traditional industries and a loss of identity. But it would be wrong to think Dudley’s best days are behind it. We led the way in the last industrial revolution, and I want Dudley to lead the way in the next, ”said Austin.
Whatever that turns out to be, Roger Scott-Dow won’t be part of it. He’s closing down the men’s outfitters he has owned for the past 30 years and is looking forward to a retirement spent caravanning around the country. “I’ve come to the end, but what I do is also coming to an end,” he said. Men in the town rarely bought suits or proper coats any more, he added.
Scott-Dow was passionately in favor of leaving the EU. Indeed, he served as a Ukip councillor for four years, although he later left the party disillusioned with Farage. Next month, he will vote Tory, and thinks the party’s support will be bolstered by former Labor voters in the constituency. “Views have hardened. People I speak to, even if they voted to stay in the EU, are disgusted at the way parliament has behaved. ”Austin’s comments would be highly influential, he added:“ He’s well thought of round here. ”
Dave Carter, who opened the nearby Arcade Toy Shop five years ago after taking redundancy from Dudley council, described himself as a “traditional Labor voter – but not any more”. He backed Remain in the 2016 referendum, but as a “vehement believer in democracy” he insisted the referendum result must be respected.
What did he think of Labor’s Brexit policy? “Have they got one? If they have, they’re keeping it close to their chest, ”he said. Other reasons he offered for his alienation from Labor were its failure to root out antisemitism in the party and its profligate spending pledges. He hadn’t 100% decided how to vote, but “I think the Tories will edge it, though it could go either way ”.
In the town center market, most traders and shoppers declined to discuss politics, aside from saying that voting was a waste of time and politicians could not be trusted.
Melanie Dudley, the aptly named Labor candidate selected last weekend, was not available to speak to theObserver, but in an email a party spokesperson said the start to the campaign had been “hectic”. The NHS, schools and policing were the main issues coming up on the doorstep. “Brexit is an issue too, mostly of frustration and incomprehension at the government’s inept handling of the matter,” said the email.
And it added: “Jeremy [Corbyn] is popular. Our voters like his authentic voice and they like what he is saying about the NHS, education and policing. They believe in him… Dudley North is always a tight race and it’s too early to tell anything from our canvass returns. Our support is holding up, and we’ve got a new, energetic candidate. All of the right ingredients for Labor to win. ”
The Conservative candidate, Marco Longhi, was also in buoyant mood. “Things are going extremely well,” he said. “Lots of people on the doorstep are Labor voters who won’t vote for Labor this time – some because of Corbyn, and some because of the party’s dithering over Brexit,” he said.
He acknowledged that his campaign had received two big boosts in recent days, one from Austin and one from the withdrawal of the Brexit party candidate.
“Our canvassing returns are very strong. All polls are moving in the right direction. I don’t want to tempt fate, but I’m a happier man than I might be otherwise. ”
Austin said his decision to leave Labor, citing a “culture of extremism and intolerance”, was a “massive wrench but the right thing to do”. He had considered standing in next month’s election as an independent, but instead would take the “unthinkable” step of voting Conservative. “I could have stood down quietly. But in politics, I think you’ve got to stand up and tell the truth, ”he said.