Analysis

The Battle for Britain: In Places Where U.K. Election Will Be Decided, It’s a Toss-up

Not long ago, many Brits couldn’t imagine choosing a radical socialist like Corbyn as prime minister, but in the wake of terror attacks and a weak campaign by Theresa May, now they are not so sure.

FILE: Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May (L) and Britain's opposition Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn (R)
ANDY BUCHANAN JACK HILL/AFP

DERBY, Britain — Forty-six million people are eligible to vote in Thursday’s general election for Britain’s parliament. Only around 10 percent of their votes will effect the outcome of the election. These will be the voters in constituencies in which, in the last election, a parliamentary seat was won by only a few percentage points. Over three-quarters of the constituencies are “safe seats,” ones that the current member of parliament, or a replacement from the same party, can be confident of winning.

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In 2015 the Conservatives, led by David Cameron, won with only a majority of 12 seats in the 650–member parliament. The same party, now led by Prime Minister Theresa May, must win most, if not all the seats that Labour won two years ago with less than a seven percent majority, in order for May’s early-election gamble to be judged a success.

Workers in protective equipment are reflected in the window of a betting shop with a display inviting customers to place bets on tbe result of the general election with images of Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May and opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, in London, June 7, 2017.
MARKO DJURICA/REUTERS

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On the opposing side, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is concentrating on the handful of seats the Conservatives won two years ago with a majority of only a few hundred or a couple of thousand votes. The showdown between the two main parties is taking place far away from London and Manchester, which are still Labour strongholds, and far from southern England, where the electoral map is a sea of Conservative blue, with a few tiny islands of Labour red. It’s taking place in the Midlands in central England and in the working-class towns of northeastern England and Wales. In these areas, the tribal loyalty to Labour has all but evaporated, while the Tories have yet to build up new loyalties. These are areas with large majorities of white Brits and a few relatively veteran immigrant communities, mainly of Indian heritage, who used to vote Labour but are now looking rightwards.

Derby, an East Midlands city of quarter of a million, is such a place. An industrial town with a proud working heritage, the city has two parliamentary constituencies which have been controlled almost exclusively by Labour since the end of the World War II. Derby South is still a “safe” Labour seat, but Derby North, which includes relatively affluent suburbs, was won three times in the last century by the Conservatives. In 2015, after 18 years of Labour domination, the Conservatives won there again by just 41 votes – a margin of 0.1 percent over the Labour candidate who lost her seat in parliament.

A short walk though one of Derby’s northwestern suburbs shows that no party can take this constituency for granted.

“For the first time in my life I will be voting Conservative,” announces Ian Suthran, an engineer who was born in the northern industrial town of Hartlepool. “I’m from a family of Labour voters and my father would turn in his grave if he knew I was voting for the Conservatives, but how can you vote for that Jeremy Corbyn? He reminds me of the child snatcher in “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” with all his inducements,” says Suthran, referring to the 1968 movie. “He promises free university tuition and free childcare but he’s got no idea how the country is going to pay for that. Most of my friends are former Labour voters who can’t stand Corbyn.”

An attendee holds a banner with the slogan 'Make June the end of May' in support of Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the U.K. opposition Labour Party, as he delivers a speech on brexit negotiations, as part of the party's general-election campaign in London, U.K., on Thursday, June 1, 2017.
Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg

Theresa May was counting on people like that — voters who can’t see the radical socialist Corbyn as prime minister — when she called early elections back in April when the Conservatives were leading in the polls by over 20 percent. Since then, however, she has run a weak campaign, Britain has been through two major terror attacks, Corbyn’s campaign has been much more effective and many who were planning to vote Conservative are no longer so sure.

“I was going to vote Conservative. I did so in the last election and I agree with most of their policies,” says Suman Ghai, an Indian car mechanic. “But since the terror attacks, I don’t trust May as much. She seems too hesitant and full of talk, but no real actions. They obviously didn’t deal well with the jihadi threat and I’m not sure she deserves my vote any more.”

And still, it seems that Corbyn remains the least favorite political figure on the street. “I don’t trust politicians generally but I can’t bring myself to even think of voting Corbyn,” says Sara Cartwright, a mother of two. “I’m still not sure what I’m going to vote. I’ll sit tonight on Google and check their positions thoroughly. I’m leaning towards the Conservatives but May really hasn’t made a good impression.”

Supporters wears a badge as he waits for Jeremy Corbyn, leader of Britain's opposition Labour Party, to arrive at a campaign event in Reading, May 31, 2017.
PETER NICHOLLS/REUTERS

Labour is basing its hopes for a surprise victory on two sectors. One, the more reliable, are the public sector workers. Jeff, who works as a nurse at a local hospital says, “I will vote Labour because they will invest more in the National Health Service. May is the better prime minister when it comes to negotiating Brexit with the European Union, but the Conservatives are less good when it comes to investing in society and that’s more important to me.”

Brexit remains a major issue in this campaign. Especially here in Derby, where nearly 60 percent voted last year to leave the European Union. May based her campaign on her tough image as the negotiator who would get Britain the best deal from the EU.

To gain a majority in many seats across the country, the Conservatives are counting on the votes of those who cast their ballots for the far-right United Kingdom Independence Party last time. The polls indeed indicate that UKIP — which had as its raison d’etre getting Britain out of the EU — is losing two-thirds of its voters to the Conservatives. But not all UKIP voters are shifting. “My son and I are voting UKIP,” says Liz Godwin, an 80-year-old pensioner. “They are the only ones who are telling the truth about immigrants and those jihadist terrorists.”

The other group Corbyn is relying on are the young voters who, according to polls, vastly prefer Labour over the Conservatives. Outside the local pub, The Nags Head, three students who came back from campus to vote are drinking. “Everyone I know who’s over 23 is voting Conservative. Everyone younger is voting Labour,” says Taylor Martin, a music student. “I agree with his [Corbyn’s] policies and he’s much more accessible than May, who looks and talks like a robot.” Her friend, Lauren Yates, who is studying management says that “I listened to Corbyn’s speech after the Manchester bombing and agreed with him. We don’t always have to talk about killing terrorists. That’s what they want. There has to be a way for them to get out of it.”

But will enough young voters actually go to the polling stations today? In the last general election in 2015, only 42 percent of voters between the ages of 18-24 voted. In last summer’s referendum on leaving the European Union, the younger voters’ turnout was once again much lower than the national level. Corbyn has been trying to speak directly to the younger generation, through interviews with music radio stations and magazines. But in order to win tomorrow he will have to not only convince them that he is the better candidate, but also galvanize young people, who don’t show much interest in politics, to get out and vote.