Opponents talk tactics as Tories hope for five Cumbrian seats at General Election

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With the Conservatives still riding high in the opinion polls, some rival politicians have predicted Theresa May could emerge from the General Election with a Thatcher-style majority.

In Cumbria, the Tories are confident they can not only hold on to their three existing seats but also have a strong chance of taking Barrow and even Workington, from Labour.

But the prospect of the county turning blue as part of a national landslide has sparked an anti-Conservative uprising.

The Green Party has already stood down its candidates in Carlisle, Copeland and Workington to help Labour gain votes, and now national organisation Compass is adding its weight to the campaign.

Having launched its Progressive Alliance movement this week, Compass chose Carlisle for one of its first meetings.

 Frances Foley

Frances Foley

Frances Foley, national campaign manager, explained why.

“Because its a snap election, there isn’t much time so we have identified clusters of seats. Here there are three seats – two (Carlisle and Copeland) to win and one (Workington) to hold,” she said.

Although local activists will target these three areas specifically, they also hope the message will spread to Barrow.

She added that because of February’s Copeland by-election, which saw the Conservatives win the seat from Labour for the first time since 1935, there had already been discussions between the various parties.

“People were very angry after that by-election. It was a wake-up call. The potential was there – if you added up the Labour, Lib Dem and Green vote it would have beaten the Tories,” she explained.

Addressing a crowd at Tullie House, Ms Foley explained how those of different political allegiances but with similar values can work together to prevent a Conservative landslide.

Longer term, they will campaign for voting reform to replace the first past the post system with proportional representation.

“We appreciate that people do not want to have to go to the ballot box and hold their nose.

“What we are saying is play the system in terms of tactical voting, but long term we want to make sure that doesn’t have to happen. They won’t have to tactically vote,” she said.

Asked whether people are willing to vote tactically, or would choose Labour just to keep the Conservatives out, Ms Foley said it is currently the only way to get heard in these areas.

“This election is definitely about stopping the Tories getting a huge majority, which would be a blank cheque to do whatever they want. That’s incredibly undemocratic, so how do we stop that?” she said.

She added that the Conservatives have effectively absorbed much of Ukip after Brexit, resulting in the “Bluekip” movement that is strengthening the Tories’ position in the polls.

In 2015, Carlisle’s Conservative candidate, John Stevenson, won with a majority of 2,774. Despite being ahead in the polls, he still believes it is a marginal seat and has vowed to fight it on that basis.

But he is critical of the stance taken by the Greens and of the Progressive Alliance campaign, describing it as negative.

“I fight as a Conservative, on the Conservative agenda, believing that it’s in the best interests of the UK,” he said. “If I was a supporter of any of the other parties who are trying to put this tactical voting alliance together, I would be very disappointed and frustrated that they are not campaigning on their own agenda.

“It’s very arrogant to assume you can direct your voters.

If someone was telling me I couldn’t vote Conservative and should vote for another party, I wouldn’t be very happy.”

Asked if it was a risk for the Greens not to field candidates, Ms Foley said: “The Greens are showing tremendous courage, but also leadership. They are saying the current system isn’t working.

“Yes, there’s a risk that their vote share goes down, but also there’s a potential for a new type of politics.

“It’s not saying the parties should collapse into each other. We want proportional representation, which would mean people would have more parties to choose from in future.”

Nationally, the Conservatives have responded to the threat from progressives by hammering home Mrs May’s “strong and stable” message, and criticising the potential for a “coalition of chaos”.

But Ms Foley said a coalition is more democratic than the current British system of two major parties shouting at each other across a room, stressing that many parliaments are now designed in a circular shape. She said their aim was to move away from “tribalism” and encourage more debate, discussion and compromise.

 Maggie Robinson

Maggie Robinson

Among those at the Carlisle meeting was Maggie Robinson, of Houghton, a member of both the Labour party and Compass.

“I think we now have a united right, in the sense of Ukip and the Conservatives, so we therefore need to make sure that the progressive parties get together and put up a concentrated effort against it. This is a way of getting everyone together,” she said.

Stephen Graham, a member of Socialist group rs21 in Carlisle, said they were trying to defend local services – including the NHS and schools – which are struggling because of Tory policies.

“We are watching the life chances of the next generation of local people being crushed before our eyes.

“There is growing local anger at what the Conservatives are doing. That’s why we are coming together,” he said.

Labour activist Rachel Hubbard added: “I’m pleased about the Greens standing down because it could have split the left vote. We are fighting for social justice.”

Asked if he was worried about the campaign being mounted against him, Mr Stevenson said: “It’s very negative. I think they should be putting forward their own agenda. I just hope people will see me as the best choice of local MP.”

The Greens are fielding candidates in Penrith and the Border (Doug Lawson) and Barrow and Furness (Rob O’Hara).

Friday, May 19, 2017 at 10:22AM
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