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The populist battle for Ashfield Lee Anderson's constituency contains the rugged heart of Britain

Lee Anderson (right) in March 2024 (HENRY NICHOLLS/AFP via Getty Images)

Lee Anderson (right) in March 2024 (HENRY NICHOLLS/AFP via Getty Images)


June 11, 2024   6 mins

Something doesn’t seem quite right about Nigel Farage. We’re in the backseat of a car parked outside the Rifle Volunteer, and he’s just spent a solid hour in his element: shaking hands, grinning and taking selfies with supporters in Ashfield. Standing on an open-top bus in mustard-coloured trousers, he had announced a six-year plan to make Reform UK the biggest party in the country.

Hidden away from the din of excitement, I ask if he regrets not standing to be an MP. He mumbles something about the Tories shafting him in 2015, about the work he is already doing. And then a pensive silence.

It was, as we now know, scenes like those outside the Rifle Volunteer that prompted Farage to change his mind and stand for election. In his press conference last week, Farage mentioned the weekend he spent first in Skegness and then Ashfield. “Something is happening out there,” he warned. But what exactly? As the election circus pitches its tent in Clacton-on-Sea, a far better yardstick for Reform’s chances nationally — and Labour’s chances of building a dynasty — can be found in Ashfield, the home of Reform’s only current MP.

Squatting between Nottingham and Mansfield, Ashfield was once surrounded by coalfields. These days, it’s Amazon warehouses and quiet industrial estates. There are things called Library Innovation Centres, a planetarium built with Levelling-Up money and streets where people die 10 years younger than the rest of the country. In response to the statement “there is no political party I actually like”, only one constituency was more in agreement.

Come 4 July, it will be a three-way fight. For Reform, it is one of their top-10 targets; for Labour, a chance to prove they can win in a place where people still talk fondly of Boris Johnson. To complicate things, there’s also an independent candidate — Jason Zadrozny — who came second to Lee Anderson, then a Conservative, in 2019. A Brexiteer sympathetic to the 70% who voted Leave in the constituency, Zadrozny is, depending on who you ask, either a “corrupt nonce” or the “best thing that’s happened to Ashfield”.

The crowd gathered to see Farage and Anderson give a taste of Reform’s base in the area. “The red wall,” a Reform strategist tells me, “is not a geographical location but a feeling.” Many here dismiss cliches about the “left-behind”, the “somewheres”, and older disaffected working-class voters. Here middle managers, accountants and dentists rub along with builders and former miners; on age too, first political memories range from Arthur Scargill’s 1984 visit to Nigel Farage’s appearance on I’m a Celebrity. If this group is indeed united by a feeling, it is one of a nation on the brink.

“He says in public what everyone is thinking in private,” a woman in her 30s tells me when I ask her to explain Anderson’s popularity. “There are parts that used to be traditional. But now its kebab shops, vape shops, it’s completely lost its identity.” Suhael, in his 40s, points to people queuing up to take photos with Farage. “My friends would probably sneer at this,” he says. He, by contrast, is drawn to Reform’s hard-line stance on immigration: “I worry for the country’s future, particularly in terms of integrating newly arrived migrants. We came to this country for its Britishness but I feel that’s under threat.”

It’s a feeling shared by the tweed-jacketed Zoomers gathered to see Farage. “If you live in clown world long enough, then a backlash among the young is inevitable,” says Robert, 25, who plans to stand for Reform against Angela Rayner in Ashton-under-Lyne. He is representative of one of the more interesting polling developments that has got Farage looking ahead to 2029. Among 18-to-24-year-olds, Reform stands at 12%, with much made of his Zoomer-savvy social-media presence on TikTok. But it’s a phenomenon that only gently chimes with an electoral breakthrough on the continent, where a much bigger cohort is voting for Le Pen’s National Rally, Geert Wilders and the AfD.

I ask Farage if this is a continental model for his latest insurgency. He describes Europe’s Right-wing populists as “trailblazers”, but insists that “we want our own island brand”. Robert seems to agree with Farage when we discuss Jordan Bardella, the 28-year-old president of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally: “We are more controlled and less extreme in our views. We present them in a more positive way.”Sat in the Costa Coffee in Sutton-in-Ashfield, Jason Zadrozny rolls his eyes when I mention the gathering outside the Rifle Volunteer. After winning 28% of the vote in 2019, he is convinced he can become the populist doge of Ashfield. “People here have given up on party politics,” he says. “People are so angry with the Tories and are just voting Labour to get rid of them.” And this extends to Lee Anderson, with whom he has a long running feud. He claims Anderson begged him to join the Tories alongside him, bringing with him the strong connections to local businesses that has been the bedrock of his populist localism. He refused. He has since had to apologise for calling Anderson a “moron” in a council planning meeting. “Lee is an angry man pointing and shouting. He’s stuck in an echo chamber on Facebook.”

“He has since had to apologise for calling Anderson a ‘moron’ in a council planning meeting.”

Zadrozny is leader of the council and one of the most successful independent politicians in the country. His localism is in many ways an end-of-the-pier tribute act to the ambitious but now seemingly tokenistic era of Johnsonian levelling up. An ice rink, a manufacturing centre and an observatory are his achievements (Anderson, he claims, didn’t want the latter which he described as “woke”). And he seeks a slither of that coalition who voted for the former prime minister in 2019. But such success is also overshadowed by allegations of corruption and cocaine possession, charges he insists are at the hands of embittered Lee Anderson’s supporters. “It’s like the Olympics; every four years they try to outdo last year’s accusations to bring you down.”

Out in Ashfield’s suburbs, meanwhile, Labour are busy knocking on doors of what desperate CCHQ strategists are calling “Whitby woman”. This is the older, home-owning Tory, let down by immigration, turned off by Sunak, and apparently enticed by proposals such as national service. Retaining her vote is key to stopping the annihilation of the Conservative Party.

Rhea Keehn is the Labour candidate trying to rub salt in the wounds by winning them over. A compliance officer who admires Harriet Harman and Yvette Cooper, she seems over eager to prove she will not go native in Westminster. “National politics, done locally” is her catchphrase, something she riffs on as she consoles elderly ladies who have had ornaments stolen from their front garden. Occasionally, between campaign speak, she will go off-script and say things like: “Smuggling gangs are mugging Britain off.” “I’m deeply proud to be British,” she makes a point of telling one woman after a long and painful conversation about immigration that stretches back to Tony Blair. Keehn is unable to convince her to vote Labour.

Do the people of Ashfield understand Labour’s vision for the country? Keehn and her fellow canvassers insist they do. And their endless list of Tory failures goes down well on the doorstep. “There’s toxic waste in Mablethorpe!” shouts one angry woman from her bedroom. But the name of the leader rarely comes up. In fact, it is hard to find anyone in Ashfield who likes Starmer or knows what his Labour government will actually do. “He seems to be like the others,” says one mum on the doorstep. “I can just tell there will be a lot of talk, but no follow-through.”

Come election night, Morgan McSweeney, the grand strategist of Labour’s campaign, will have a close eye on Ashfield. His manual for this election is Electoral Shocks: The Volatile Voter in a Turbulent World. It is a book that explains the political landscape of places like Ashfield: where partisan party affiliation is dead, folk memory of party politics is non-existent, and apathetic voters respond collectively to mass immigration and financial shocks. A big Labour win not just here, but also in 2029 and beyond, will be a test of the McSweeney project, which holds that the populism and apathy that defines Ashfield is not a product of “anxiety” in response to growing “openness’” of the world, but a measure of Labour’s disconnect.

And this is not just a disconnect to the “red wall”, but to the entire electorate. In Ashfield, after all, we can see extreme reactions to national problems that have only deteriorated since 2010: housing, immigration, the NHS and the cost of living. “Politicians don’t like coming here,” says Rob. “It’s too much a reminder of reality.” But they will have to come. Not just in the next few weeks, but over the next decade. For understanding the reality here is a precious political resource. In it lies the energy behind what are now the two defining movements in Britain’s politics: the future of its populist Right, and Labour’s plan to ensure it doesn’t have one.


Fred Skulthorp is a writer living in England. His Substack is Bad Apocalypse 

Skulthorp

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Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
3 days ago

I have a question tangentially related to the article.. One of the Reform candidates was denounced for having made a comment in Unherd, to the effect that Britain would have been better off if it had not declared war on Germany in WW2. Cue undiluted horror and cancellation of his candidature. What interested me was, how on earth was the comment found. Did someone manage to go thru 10 years of comments by all and sundry before finding gold? Were they able to enter Unherd files and do a search for all Reform candidates? Is monitoring Unherd comments something done automatically by the Prevent terrorism or intelligence services? Did a staff member think, gosh I know that name, and call up the BBC? I hope this post isnt deleted,because I am genuinely curious to know what others think.

Malcolm Webb
Malcolm Webb
3 days ago
Reply to  Anna Bramwell

Very good question which deserves an answer. Is there an industry out there constructing personal profiles based on Unherd comments? If so I might stop using my real name – or simply stop commenting. I tend to comment quite spontaneously and certainly not with care for how it could be used against me by persons having a malign intent.

John Dellingby
John Dellingby
2 days ago
Reply to  Malcolm Webb

I use a fictional name for that exact purpose, although if internal my e-Mail address does have my actual name in it. However, if that were the case in someone being able to disclose my identity, I would be suing the pants off UnHerd for a data protection breach in such a scenario.

Citizen Diversity
Citizen Diversity
3 days ago
Reply to  Anna Bramwell

For what it’s worth, Galloway recently made some observations about a Guardian article the newspaper asked him to comment on before publication.
The newspaper had a detailed breakdown of how many likes and comments of various types his broadcasts and platforms had received over a long period. Galloway surmised that only the security services had the time and resources to find this information and had supplied it to the newspaper.

Citizen Diversity
Citizen Diversity
3 days ago
Reply to  Anna Bramwell

In fact the Reform candidate is sadly all too typical of the public in that he thinks that it is forever 1939. As if nothing happened before or since.
If Britain had remained neutral in 1914 there would have been no Second World War. No one would have heard of AH. There wouldn’t have been a Nazi Party or the Holocaust. All these things came from Imperial Germany’s defeat in 1918.
As the sole objective of Imperial Germany in 1914 was to dismantle the Russian Empire and had succeeded in occupying more of western Russia by the end of 1917 than the Nazis, there wouldn’t have been a USSR, nor a Cold War, if Germany had not been subsequently defeated in 1918.
Today, there are fevered hopes that Russia will disintegrate. But it could have been achieved a century ago.

Red Reynard
Red Reynard
2 days ago

Not heard of the Schlieffen Plan, then, CD?

Victoria Cooper
Victoria Cooper
2 days ago
Reply to  Anna Bramwell

Mining is particularly good business before an election. (Great question).

Mark Phillips
Mark Phillips
3 days ago

“And he seeks a slither of that coalition ….”. Will someone, please, tell this uneducated writer that it is a ‘sliver’ and not a ‘slither’.

Mark Phillips
Mark Phillips
3 days ago
Reply to  Mark Phillips

Those who down voted need to up their language skills.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
3 days ago
Reply to  Mark Phillips

Downvotes for this type of comment tend to be from those who really don’t think it matters. It really does. It’s about precision and anyone who thinks a lack of precision is okay should tell that to their prospective employer when they next go for a job interview.

Last edited 3 days ago by Lancashire Lad
Ian Barton
Ian Barton
3 days ago
Reply to  Mark Phillips

That comment has gone down like a damp squid 🙂

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
3 days ago
Reply to  Mark Phillips

Yes. The lesson is: if you must use chatgpt then proofread carefully.

Red Reynard
Red Reynard
2 days ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

Did you mean, ‘chatGPT’, HB. . .
I’m really sorry, I couldn’t resist :-))

James Kirk
James Kirk
3 days ago
Reply to  Mark Phillips

Maybe it’s Freudian in so much as politics is such a game of snakes and ladders. With wobbly dice.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
3 days ago

Compliance officer.
Says it all.
They must already outnumber the actual do-ers in politics but I have a feeling they’re going to outnumber them in daily life too.

Caractacus Potts
Caractacus Potts
3 days ago

I lived near Ashfield for a long time. Sutton and Kirkby were classic colliery towns. Not rich but straightforward and with a sense of community that also engendered a sense of humour that I enjoyed very much.
Now residents are ignored by politicians and derided or patronised in the legacy media. It still has its nice areas but much of it is plagued by poverty and drugs. Ashfield folk have had to learn resilience in the face of such relentless contempt. So I’m not surprised that independents are doing well there.
But there was no need for it to become such an exemplar of the decline and fall of the working class. This was all done deliberately by politicians of all stripes over the last 25+ years. So I wanted to comment that to see fake politicians trotting out and wringing their hands about it once every four years is truly nauseating.

Last edited 3 days ago by Caractacus Potts
Citizen Diversity
Citizen Diversity
3 days ago

The Labour candidate wants national politics, done locally.
Once it would have been solely local.
National politics done locally sounds more like the imperial centre deciding what the provincials have to suck up and like on Facebook.
In Tooting, London, the Tory hopeful (local sacrifice on the altar of national politics?) has among his offerings, increased defence spending? Is this an Iron Dome to protect the local businesses from shoplifters?
Politicians constantly say that they are delivering for you. Their claim is that they are necessary for you. The British people want.. is a favoured phrase for telling the people what they will get. And if they are necessary for you, you will want them to always be there, delivering.
As governments can no longer justify themselves by the divine right of kings or hereditary, delivering for you is the way to do it. But what if they don’t deliver what you actually want?

John Dellingby
John Dellingby
2 days ago

The Labour candidate sounds like she’s got her priorities the wrong way round regarding “going native”. Can’t imagine admiration for Harriet Harman and Yvette Cooper is a common theme in Ashfield, but you never know I suppose. If Labour are able to win seats like Ashfield, it’ll be fascinating when they’re confronted by their constituents over very left wing policy matters.