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‘Just Disillusioned’: How U.K. Conservatives Lost a New Heartland

On a hilltop next to a vast limestone quarry in England’s East Midlands, a crowd of about 60 people gathered last Thursday evening to witness the lighting of a beacon to mark the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landings. Amid the drab parkas and pullovers was a figure in a striking red coat: Natalie Fleet, the Labour Party’s candidate for Parliament, wearing her party’s campaign color.

She turned up late, having hiked up in heels. But she mixed easily, chatting with a 17-year-old high school student, Georgia Haslam, about her desire to get more young women engaged in politics.

“It was reassuring to hear someone like her say, ‘I understand you,’” Ms. Haslam said afterward. “If you’re not from a city, if you’re not wealthy, it’s not clear that these politicians really care about you.”

Ms. Fleet is on track to win back the parliamentary district of Bolsover for Labour, which in 2019 it lost to the Conservatives for the first time in almost 70 years. Her appearance at the D-Day commemoration was a telling contrast to the Conservative prime minister, Rishi Sunak, who skipped out of D-Day ceremonies in France the same day to return to London, drawing a torrent of criticism.

And the Labour Party isn’t even the only headache for the Tories, three weeks before Britain’s general election on July 4. In this hard-bitten region of abandoned coal mines and shuttered steel mills, the insurgent party Reform U.K. is mounting an unexpectedly robust challenge. It could siphon off enough votes from the Conservatives here to leapfrog into second place, after Labour.

Until recently, such an outcome would have been unfathomable. The Conservative Party has held power for about two-thirds of its nearly 200-year history, making it one of the world’s oldest, most successful political parties. Yet less than five years after winning a landslide victory on a pledge to “get Brexit done,” the Conservatives find themselves on the cusp of a crushing defeat.

Nowhere is their reversal of fortune more palpable than in the “red wall,” a set of coal and factory towns in the Midlands and north of England that long voted for Labour but swung dramatically to the Conservatives in 2019. Now many of these voters, disillusioned after their brief betrothal to the Tories, are flocking back to Labour. Some are even taking a chance on Reform, an anti-immigration populist party that has its roots in the debate over Brexit.

Political analysts have likened these towns to parts of the American Midwest where people once reliably voted for Democrats, before drifting toward the Republicans in recent decades. But while many of those converts now seem locked into their party preferences, the British electorate has become more volatile, with declining party loyalty and an openness to insurgents.

“We’ll overtake the Tories,” predicted Robert Reaney, a vintage motorcycle dealer who is Reform’s candidate in Bolsover. “The real question is: Will people switch back to Labour?”

Mr. Reaney, 56, claimed that voters were not inspired by either Mr. Sunak or Labour’s leader, Keir Starmer. That has left an opening for Nigel Farage, the populist firebrand who leads Reform. Mr. Farage’s surprise announcement that he would run for a seat in Parliament has lifted his party to within a couple of percentage points of the Conservatives in some polls.

Parts of Reform’s platform, particularly its promise to cut taxes, are not unusual for a right-of-center party. “We haven’t been taxed this bad since the sheriff of Nottingham was around,” Mr. Reaney said over fish and chips in Chesterfield, about 25 miles north of the sheriff’s jurisdiction.

But other Reform proposals, like adopting a French-style health system or holding a public inquiry into the supposed harm caused by coronavirus vaccines, put it well to the right of any mainstream British party.

Reform’s pledge to slash immigration to “net zero” is its biggest calling card in working-class districts like Bolsover — places that voted to leave the European Union in 2016 and have grown frustrated as legal immigration has surged, asylum seekers have continued to cross the English Channel, and Brexit has not delivered the windfall that its evangelists promised.

The party’s website warns of a “population explosion” of immigrants, which it says is threatening “British culture, identity and values.” But Mr. Reaney rejected suggestions that Reform was racist.

“We’re completely colorblind; we’re not culture blind,” he said. “We don’t mind if you’re Black, white, yellow, green, bright pink, or beamed down from Mars. We don’t care where you’re from — just come and respect our culture, which is not a great ask.”

A garrulous autodidact, who peppers his conversation with references to Otto von Bismark, Mr. Reaney is not an obvious choice to spearhead a populist revolt. But he has turned his dealership into a hotbed for Reform supporters, who come in to talk politics and gaze at his lovingly restored 1938 Coventry-Eagle motorcycle.

“This is just the starting point for Reform,” said Ashley Marples, 58, who collects motor scooters and describes himself as a fan of Mr. Farage. “In three or four years, they will gain momentum and be a real contender.”

In its first comprehensive poll of the election, the market research firm YouGov projected that Labour would win 47 percent of the vote in Bolsover, compared with 23 percent for the Conservatives and 18 percent for Reform. But that was before Mr. Farage entered the race and before Mr. Sunak left the D-Day events early.

Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, said that betting on a second-place Reform finish was “entirely reasonable.”

“Sunak’s premature exfiltration from Normandy has gone down badly everywhere and with almost everyone,” he added. “It certainly won’t play well with voters hovering between Conservative and Reform, most of whom are incredibly patriotic, heavily prone to nostalgia, and very supportive of the U.K.’s armed services.”

That is bad news for the Tory incumbent, Mark Fletcher. In 2019, he turned out the Labour Party’s longest serving member of Parliament, Dennis Skinner. But he faces an uphill struggle to hold on to his seat. Mr. Fletcher points to 15 million pounds, or $19 million, in funds that he secured to spruce up Bolsover, a town of about 12,000 that sits in the shadow of a majestic 17th-century castle.

But he has fallen into a bitter standoff with the Labour-controlled district council over where to spend the money. He said the council was guilty of “cronyism,” while the council’s leader, Stephen Fritchley, said there weren’t enough suitable projects in the town. The two men aren’t on speaking terms.

Neither of the major-party candidates was especially open to reporters either. Mr. Fletcher declined an interview, saying he was too busy campaigning. Party officials did not make Ms. Fleet available for a formal interview, suggesting they are protecting their lead.

Still, Mr. Fritchley, who has canvassed for Labour, said 2024 felt different from 2019, when voters were frustrated about Brexit, suspicious of Labour’s left-wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and impatient with their member of Parliament, Mr. Skinner, who was 87 and had been in his seat since 1970.

Mr. Starmer has pulled the party toward the center, while Ms. Fleet, 40, is a working-class product of the Midlands. A onetime single mother who had a child at 16, she ran for a seat in the neighboring district of Ashfield in 2019, falling victim to the Conservative rout. This time, Ms. Fleet said, the mood among voters was so much better that her youngest child, who is 10, has joined her in knocking on doors.

Mr. Fritchley said he, too, had encountered less resistance. “People made their point in 2019,” he said. “They’re more inclined now to look at which government is going to support working-class people in this area. What I expect a Labour government to provide is some sort of hope for the future.”

Still, even if the Tories are on the ropes, some of the economic and social forces that fueled their last surge are still churning beneath the surface.

In Shirebrook, a onetime mining town that is one of Bolsover’s poorer precincts, the residents have yet to adjust to the changes wrought by immigration. More than a decade ago, a sporting-goods company hired hundreds of workers from Eastern Europe to staff a large warehouse, and memories of that linger.

“The Conservatives have policies that we agree with,” said Alison Owen, citing immigration. But Ms. Owen, 52, a restaurant supervisor who was playing bingo at a social club that serves former miners, said, “We’re Labour, through and through.” Some of her friends who voted for the Tories “are switching back,” she said.

Michele Longden, whose family owns a construction equipment rental company, said the expected Labour victory was less an expression of excitement about the party than a measure of ennui with the status quo.

“Most people are just disillusioned, full stop,” she said. “I think turnout will be low, which will give it to Labour, but by default.”

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