Leeds East: Is there a crisis of identity in one of Labour's safest seats?

Amid in-fighting, Jeremy Corbyn insists he has the support of Labour voters. Sarah Freeman heads to one of the Party's safest seats in Yorkshire to find out if he's right.

By The Newsroom
Wednesday, 20th July 2016, 8:44 am
Updated Wednesday, 20th July 2016, 9:49 am

East Leeds is a Labour heartland. Or at least it was. The gentrification which has transformed many of the city’s other suburbs has not yet reached the likes of Seacroft and Halton. It’s mainly white, working class and when they are asked to go to the ballot box the result has been a foregone conclusion for more than a century.

This is the constituency where the much-loved Denis Healey was MP for 37 years. When he stood down, he was followed by Labour’s George Mudie and now Richard Burgon. Newly elected, his 12,533 majority is unsurprisingly the envy of many of his fellow backbenchers who saw their own vote slashed at the last General Election. In short, it’s a place where if Jeremy Corbyn is right they should be flying the flag for his continued leadership.

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However, if David Galley is typical of East Leeds residents, the MP for Islington North may need to look elsewhere for a vote of confidence. Walking his dog on Manston Park in Cross Gates, the 59-year-old retired local government officer has little time for the Conservative Party, but like many has been left frustrated by Labour’s apparent inability to capitalise on Cameron and Osborne’s woes.

“It’s sad to say, but Labour is in disarray - there doesn’t seem to be any plan,” he says. “The Tories have faced uncertain times, division and back-biting, but they have sorted themselves out quickly and the appointment of Theresa May is like a line in the sand.

“Her predecessor made a mess of an awful lot of things. The anti-austerity measures haven’t worked and the deficit is still as big as ever, George Osborne seems to have disappeared out the tradesman’s entrance presumably never to be seen again and Cameron will never have to answer for any of his policies. It’s been a shambles, but the Labour Party just hasn’t been able to capitalise on the situation and it now feels like May has been given a clean slate.

“Jeremy Corbyn seems like a man of principle, but having principles is not the same as being a strong leader. He obviously has the backing from the majority of Labour Party members, but that’s very different from having the support of the wider electorate. I just can’t imagine him as a Prime Minister and who knows what state Labour will be in by the next General Election.”

While Corbyn has become an easy hate figure for those like Angela Eagle who believe the Party needs more dynamic, less overtly left-leaning leadership, the real problem for Labour may well be the current disillusionment stretches much further back. It goes beyond Ed Miliband, beyond Gordon Brown even and right back to Tony Blair.

“I’ve not been able to vote for them since Blair,” says 46-year-old jeweller Chris. She doesn’t want to give her surname, but is far less reticent when it comes to pinpointing where it all began to unravel for Labour who seemed unstoppable when they swept to power on that historic May night in 1997. “For a lot of my generation that General Election felt different, it felt like we had a party in power that were going to make a real difference. But Blair was just like all the rest and once he had got into Number 10 just seemed to be out for himself.”

Recent polls haven’t been kind to Corbyn, who was the unlikely successor in the last leadership race, largely thanks to the support of a new generation of Labour-ites who joined the party en masse looking for an alternative to traditional politics and traditional politicians.

For many though the biggest fear is that Labour will put itself through a costly, time consuming leadership race and emerge either with absolutely no change at all or a new leader that is viewed as equally ineffective.

Writing on his blog just a couple of weeks ago, Burgon described the plot to oust Corbyn as “anti-democratic and offensive to Labour members”.

“For some, a smaller and less active Labour Party is a price worth paying for a return to the status quo that they are comfortable with,” he went on. “A status quo which lost Labour five million votes between 1997 and 2010, saw Labour decimated in Scotland and viewed as part of a political establishment. Not only are these MPs out of touch with Party members. They are also out of touch with voters.”

Across at the Arndale Centre, the various nail bars, charity shops and discount outlets are doing a brisk trade. Taking a seat on one of the various benches outside is Patrick Nolan. Historically he was a Labour voter, but at 92 says he would now struggle to put his cross in the same place again.

“They don’t seem to know who they are or where they are going any more,” says the former gas board worker. “Their policies seem muddled and on so many issues the party seems divided. I don’t know that I could vote for them again. Having said that I don’t think I would vote Conservative. The only option may be to not vote at all.”

There was some glimmer of hope for Corbyn.

“I like him. I think he seems honest,” says Emma Bedlington, who has just finished her first year of A-Levels. “A lot of MPs just blur into one. At least he dares to be a bit different. I don’t really see why Labour is fighting among itself. There are far bigger things to worry about an they should really get behind Corbyn.”