Labour, Lib Dems have eyes on previously safe seat of Altrincham and Sale West
In the words of Brenda from Bristol: "You're joking. Not another one."
Yes that’s right, another general election. But this one is a bit different. Brexit is disrupting how elections are usually played out, with many experts seeing this as a binary vote on whether or not we leave the EU. A referendum by proxy, if you will.
But on the ground voters are feeling torn and confused. Lifelong affiliations seem to no longer apply and constituents, fed up with national politics, are looking to the substance of what their local candidates are offering. Simple polling questions are struggling to capture the mood, leading some to brand this 'the most unpredictable election ever'.
Public trust does seem to be at an all-time low and it’s this factor that could spin the election any which way
The current MP, Sir Graham Brady, has looked secure over the last few years because of the area’s long-held ties with Conservatism. As the chair of the 1922 Committee (the association of Conservative backbenchers) he is an extremely influential figure within the Conservative party and has therefore been a powerful advocate for the well-to-do suburb since he took the seat in 1997.
So what has changed? Well, Altrincham and Sale West voted for Remain, Brady is a stauncher Leaver, campaigning vociferously to exit the EU. Seeing this split of opinion between the MP and the majority of his constituents, the Lib Dems have announced that one of their own bigger names, Angela Smith, will run for the seat.
Angela Smith is currently the MP for Penistone and Stockbridge in South Yorkshire. She was elected as a Labour MP but resigned in February 2019, subsequently joining Change UK then becoming an Independent until she joined the Liberal Democrats in September. Her resignation from Labour was, in part, prompted by her strong Remain position, despite representing a Leave constituency, in a mirror image of Graham Brady's situation in Altrincham and Sale West. Smith is also a vocal critic of Jeremy Corbyn and it is the match between her strong position on remaining in the EU and affiliation to the more moderate left that the Lib Dems hope will entice one-time Brady voters into her camp.
She commented: "I’m delighted to be standing as the Liberal Democrat candidate in Altrincham and Sale West at the next general election, whenever that comes.
“It has been an honour to serve as the Member of Parliament for Penistone and Stocksbridge and before that Sheffield Hillsborough. Representing local people is a huge privilege and I want to thank everyone who has supported me over the years.
“We have a fantastic opportunity to beat a Brexiteer MP and the Conservatives in Greater Manchester. As well as leading the fight to stop Brexit, I will stand up for the people of Altrincham and Sale West in the face of brutal Conservative cuts to our NHS, police and schools.
“Labour and the Conservatives have consistently let us down on Brexit. Only the Liberal Democrats are committed to stopping Brexit.”
No doubt one of the reasons Smith is leaving her original constituency is that many of her initial supporters may not be impressed by her changing loyalties, but also that in that last election the Conservatives made good ground against her in the last election. Similarly, Labour halved the Conservative majority in Altrincham and Sale West last time around, so everything is to play for.
However, the move is a very risky gamble. In the last general election the Liberal Democrat candidate Jane Brophy (now an MEP) gained 4,051 votes, or 7.7% of the vote. For comparison, Graham Brady won last time with 26,933, or 51% of the vote, so it would take an almost unbelievably huge swing to elect Angela Smith and is bad news for the Labour candidate (more on him below) as it will split the progressive vote, handing Brady the advantage.
Concentrating on Brexit as the key issue, important as it may be, might not be as simple as the Lib Dems seem to believe. One constituent, who was otherwise inclined to vote for the Liberal Democrats on social issues, told me that he thought the plan to revoke Brexit without a referendum if the party won an absolute majority was undemocratic and he actually preferred Labour’s policy of holding a second referendum, despite voting Leave the first time around. However, this voter "hated" many of Labour's economic policies and was left more confused than ever.
Apart from Brexit, Angela Smith was also opposed to the renationalisation of the water industry, a key Labour policy, and supported fracking, both of which lead to her constituency party passing a vote of no confidence in her. She was also criticised in the expenses scandal for voting to keep MPs expenses secret and employing her husband as a parliamentary assistant (Graham Brady also employs his wife as a parliamentary assistant).
But Smith is not the only one to face censure. Graham Brady was criticised for making £1.1 million from the sale of his London flat, which was partly subsidised by the tax-payer. At the time, he commented: “Capital Gains Tax was paid on this transaction, more than refunding the mortgage interest subsidy claimed.”
A further source of criticism was Brady's trip to the Cayman Islands worth £10,459, paid for by the Cayman Government. According to Buzzfeed, Brady subsequently defended the Cayman Island’s position on beneficial ownership registers, which transparency campaigners say can help facilitate tax evasion for the super-rich.
Grammar schools are also a key constituency issue, with Graham Brady being extremely active in this area; not least, as he told the New Statesman, because “I owe my career to grammar schools” (Brady attended Altrincham Boys). Angela Smith is much less vocal on the subject, though she did tell The Star: "Given the funding crisis affecting schools in my area it is quite unbelievable that at the drop of a hat the government can seem to find extra resources for Grammar Schools, a pet project of the Prime Minister.
"While I would not wish to take money away from any school it would be nice if children in my constituency were treated the same as those going to grammar schools.”
So far we’ve dealt with a two MPs who have been in the spotlight for more or less positive reasons. But what about the Labour candidate? Though he may not have the national level experience of the other two main candidates, Cllr Andrew Western has earned a name for himself in his own arena as Leader of Trafford Council. Western has only been Leader since early 2018, but he will no doubt benefit from the associated glow of the success of Altrincham’s regeneration.
While Altrincham and Sale West’s general prosperity cannot be solely attributed to recent leadership changes, there may be an interesting corollary effect. The town’s regeneration has attracted a younger and slightly more liberal demographic who may not be comfortable with Graham Brady’s position on abortion and gay marriage (in 2013 he voted against gay marriage and in 2003 against repealing Section 28).
Like Brady, Western is a local boy who has lived his entire life in the area (though Brady's main home is in fact in London, where his children attended school). He previously worked in IT and project management and has been councillor for Sale since 2011. If he were to be elected as MP then Western would stand down as leader of the Labour group and a new leader would be elected who would become Leader of Trafford Council.
Western also ran in the previous election and increased Labour's share of the vote to 38.8% - or 20,507 to Brady's 26,933. You can see why the Conservatives are delighted rather than intimated by Smith parachuting into the area as she is just as likely, if not more, to affect Western's figures as their own.
Though Labour as a whole do not have the clarity of the Lib Dems when it comes to the key issue of Brexit, Andrew Western himself has made his opposition clear, stating: “I was proud at Wednesday’s full Council meeting to move a motion opposing No Deal in any circumstances and calling for a Second Referendum on EU membership. Trafford’s economy would be more affected than most by Brexit and the Council’s finances would be at serious risk as a result - threatening our local services. I can’t stay silent in such circumstances and will continue to make the case for remaining in the EU to protect jobs, trade, national security and our environment.” Western reiterated to me that he campaigned hard for Remain in 2016 and would be fully in support of a second referendum.
There is not much available on Western’s position on grammar schools, though he did abstain from a Conservative motion to congratulate the government on a new grammar school to open in Kent in 2015. It is not clear why the Tories felt the need to propose this motion other than to specifically force local Labour politicians into an opposing position. While a Labour MP is unlikely to be able to do away with grammar schools altogether, he or she may take the opportunity address the lack of social mobility in the grammar school system.
Cllr Western has since contacted Confidentials to reiterate that he supports the national Labour policy of letting parents decide in areas where grammar schools already exist, telling me: "We would not take a national decision to scrap them but – as has legally been the case for more than 20 years in the UK - it should be a decision for local parents. The last Labour Government made this the only way that the system could be changed."
It is obvious from talking to voters that the general election will not be the single issue vote that some politicians think it will be: issues that came up included funding for the NHS, renewable energy, privatisation and the minimum wage. But Brexit does indeed have a strong effect on what is the true problem for voters: trust – or lack of it. Though it is a continual refrain in politics, public trust does seem to be at an all-time low and it’s this factor that could spin the election any which way, in Altrincham and Sale West as much, if not more, than many other constituencies. The ultimate question may be: which of the candidates do you trust?
Who will you vote for? The list of candidates in full
Conservative: Graham Brady
Green: Geraldine Coggins
Liberal Democrat: Angela Smith
Liberal: Neil Taylor
Labour: Andrew Western