A Student’s View From The Count — General Election 2017 @ Portsmouth Guildhall
Last week James Gale, Journalism and English Language student at the University of Portsmouth, witnessed one of the biggest shocks in the General Election. Portsmouth South, considered by many to be a key marginal battleground for the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, became a Labour constituency for the first time since its creation in 1918. James offers his take on the result below.
Theresa May’s snap general election, called with such clinical confidence 7 weeks ago, quickly turned to complacency; finishing with, dare I say it, a Coalition of Chaos on Friday morning. It was a truly dramatic night, and marked a Labour resurgence few saw coming; Portsmouth, of course, was no different. The News surveyed the scene, and spoke to candidates, councillors and campaigners.
Portsmouth South, a constituency historically fought between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, had anticipated an unexpectedly, even fiercely, tight contest — a final YouGov poll judged the Conservatives just one point ahead of Labour at 36 to 35, with the Lib Dems, surprisingly, trailing on 21 points. The night began with quiet murmurs of a maiden Labour victory, one simply unimaginable just seven weeks ago, and the mood in the Labour camp was one of quiet excitement; a buzz that grew into increasingly fervent excitement as the night progressed.
Indeed, the Lib-Dem candidate Gerald Vernon-Jackson quietly confided defeat to The News by 1am — a councillor of 14 years, the contest’s early favourite, and the first shock of night. The Lib Dem’s early anxiety — a team of nervous glances, frequently pacing the floor — became a subdued acceptance; Milton Ward councillor Ben Dowling sheepishly told us “Win or lose, we feel positive about the engagement we’ve had with the community… we never went into it assuming we were going to win — we still don’t know what the outcome will be — but regardless, we know we do good things here in Portsmouth and we’ll keep trying to do that”. Provisional results were delivered to candidates at 2:30am, and it was jubilant cheers and laughing from the Labour camp — and a defeated, despondent Flick Drummond — that signalled early, unofficial confirmation of Labour’s monumental victory.
Neighbouring Portsmouth North has proven a notably more predictable seat in recent years — Conservative Penny Mourdant, who has only ever increased her hold on the region over the preceding elections, ensured the seat remained a national bellwether and solidified her grip on her constituency. This was undoubtedly reflected in the reactions of the Conservative camp, and their popular MP; a notably calmer reaction than their neighbouring victors in the South, and a simple acceptance of an expected mandate. Where Portsmouth South offered a night of increasingly fraught anticipation — whether excitement or nervousness — this result really was anticipated from the off: Nisha Khan, daughter of Labour’s North candidate Rumal, told The News: “I’m really proud of my dad — he’s done a lot in such a short amount of time. He’s really come a lot far and I’m really proud of him, and no matter what the outcome is he’s always going to be my hero.”; Neill Young, Conservative councillor for Copnor, quietly acknowledged his party’s expected victory early in the contest — attributing it, in part, to a fear of Labour’s divisive leadership: “We’ve had a good campaign here in Portsmouth… people I speak to have been extremely positive, and the concerns people have raised with me have been concerns about what potentially a Labour government would mean — so the sense I’ve got, even today, was that people were very concerned.”.
Labour’s Stephen Morgan, a maiden candidate, and the Lib Dem’s Gerald Vernon-Jackson, a councillor of 15 years and runner-up in 2015, made their Portsmouth ‘born and bred’ heritage central campaign pivots; as candidates vied for a cutting edge in an increasingly tight contest. Morgan emphasised his Portsmouth heritage to The News — ‘I went to local schools, my family work in public sector organisations — and it’s that’s resonated with local people’. A feeling in this campaign, for both voters and candidates, is that 2015’s MPs prioritised party over Portsmouth — The News put this perception to Morgan: “I think the fact that we’ve seen two other candidates from other parties, that have moved into Portsmouth for their political careers, is something that people on the doorstep have said they want someone they know, they trust, they see around town, that will represent them in parliament.”’ Councillor Dowling was quick to agree — “If you look at Flick Drummond’s voting record, she has voted with the Government every single time. Last year, when local councils were offered more money for Adult Social Care — which is a massive, massive pressure on the council here in Portsmouth, Flick voted against Portsmouth getting that extra money. And that is a clear example of putting party before Portsmouth.” Conservative Councillor Young was quick, and prickly, in his defence of the Tory’s local record: “I think when you’re a member of a small party, it’s very easy to accuse MPs of that. I think that, y’know, when you look at our MPs have done here in the city they have always advocated the role of the city and been strong advocates in Westminster… I’ve seen fantastic from work from our MPs. Penny does fantastic work, and so does Flick”.
Housing, homelessness and health care have formed the battleground issues for this campaign, to which Dowling offer a nuanced response: “I think they interconnect. Health, we are very clear — St. James’ Hospital should not stop being used for health, even if it is not used in its current form,”, he told us. “In terms of housing, we’ve got a really positive national policy… we know how difficult it can be for young people to get on the property ladder but not even just young people — young professionals: teachers, nurses and doctors — who genuinely, even in those professions, cannot get onto the ladder. Homelessness is really a big problem for us, but actually it’s due to poor Government policies over multiple years… we shouldn’t live in a society where homelessness is accepted, and that is where we’ve gone wrong.” For Morgan, the diagnosis was similar. “We see rough sleepers doubling in recent years, we’ve seen schools in crisis and cuts to the funding they so desperately need, we’ve seen the Queen Alexandra Hospital missing out under the Tories by £7.6m — and a Labour plan is to invest in our NHS.” Councillor Neill Young kept close to the Conservative party line: “The issues around health are deep set, what we’ve got to do is move away from just throwing money at it — we need to look again at how we can move forward with the health service. The Conservatives are really keen to develop housing, so there is more opportunity for everyone to have housing that meets their needs. Homelessness is a big issue, and no party has come up with a clear — how they’re going to tackle that going forward.”
Each party offered strong support for EU nationals — students, employees — based in Portsmouth, perhaps fearful for their future over the next two years. “Yes, we’re leaving the EU, but yes, these people are part of our city and part of our country. And we have to ensure they feel a part of it.” Councillor Young said, and Stephen Morgan was similarly adamant: “Our NHS simply wouldn’t survive without the tremendous support that we have from EU nationals running those services. It’s incredibly important we offer certainty for people who might be affected by Brexit.” Dowling offered a simple, staunch response. “We will defend their right to be here, no matter what.”.
Ultimately, it was a fitting night for the 2017 General Election; exciting, fiercely contested and utterly unpredictable. For candidates and councillors, a fleeting moment of reflection is a deserved-luxury; and for none more so than Portsmouth South’s new Member of Parliament: “It’s been really positive — we’ve wanted to talk to people and understand their issues, offering people hope — and that’s been really important… and it’s been really great experience. I’ve not stood for parliament before, and it’s been a fantastic opportunity for someone born and bred in Portsmouth,”, he explains. For now, Westminster awaits — and his priority for Portsmouth is simple: “A strong, authentic voice in parliament, and someone they can trust in key decisions that we face. But also, always, put Portsmouth first — and that’s what I offer.”