Johnson Hopes U.K. Working-Class Support Will Get Him Reelected

Dec 10, 2019
Originally published on December 11, 2019 12:39 am
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President Trump won election in 2016 in part by breaching the blue wall. That's the way political strategists described blue states that Democrats thought he would never win, industrial states - Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania. On Thursday in the U.K., Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Conservative Party hope to breach the red wall. That's the political strategist term for blue-collar regions in the north of England that have long been strong for Johnson's Labour Party opposition. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from the red wall from a town called Bishop Auckland.

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FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Karen Walton (ph) is making a milkshake at her cafe. It's in a near deserted mall in this town of around 25,000, about five hours' drive north of London. Bishop Auckland is former coal country. Like most people here, Walton has always voted Labour. But this year feels different.

KAREN WALTON: I'm still undecided, to be honest (laughter).

LANGFITT: How are you leaning?

WALTON: I'm kind of leaning more towards Conservatives purely to be out of Europe.

LANGFITT: Did you ever think you'd say that?

WALTON: No, I never thought I would say that - ever.

LANGFITT: Why not?

WALTON: I've grew up never to support Conservatives (laughter).

LANGFITT: Labour has traditionally represented the working class of England's once industrial north. But people here also voted heavily for Brexit, which is why Walton thinks the Conservatives will win.

WALTON: Votingwise in this town, I don't think it's going to be Labour anymore. This time round, I think it's going to be a shock (laughter).

LANGFITT: Boris Johnson has pledged to, quote, "get Brexit done." The prime minister may portray himself as a bumbling upper-class eccentric, but Walton says his Brexit message resonates here.

WALTON: I think he's a crazy character. But when it comes to Briexit (ph), I do think he would get us out and get us a good deal.

BRIAN RAMSEY: At the moment, the Conservatives are riding the wave only because the alternative is so appalling.

LANGFITT: Brian Ramsey (ph) is sharing a pint with friends at a pub. He's talking about Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party. Corbyn has refused to take a side on Brexit. And some of his controversial past positions bother voters, like refusing specifically to denounce the Irish Republican Army and voting against renewing Trident, Britain's nuclear missile system.

RAMSEY: Trident, nuclear, the IRA - all those things are enough for me to not be interested at all in giving him my vote. And I think a lot of people will be voting Tory and perhaps holding their noses while they do it.

LANGFITT: Corbyn is deeply unpopular with the British public. The polling firm YouGov found that 61% viewed the Labour Party leader negatively. Boris Johnson has lots of detractors, as well...

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LANGFITT: ...Including Ken Crozier (ph), who's buying groceries this morning.

KEN CROZIER: He's a liar. He's been sacked from two jobs for telling lies. And yet, you've got to put your trust in him.

LANGFITT: The Conservative Party fired Johnson from a Cabinet job after he lied about an affair, and The Times of London fired him when he was a journalist for making up a quote. The Conservatives also have a bitter history in this part of the country. Under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the government shut down coal mines and crushed the miners' union.

CROZIER: I mean, I'm an ex-miner. I had 12 months on strike because of a Tory government. When Margaret Thatcher died, the miners' union had a lot of party - you know, a ding-dong-the-witch-is-gone party. You know what I mean?

LANGFITT: Many voters here are too young to remember the miners' strike, but Crozier will never forget.

CROZIER: The Tory party has never done anything for working-class people - ever. I would sooner stick pins in my eyes and cut my arm off with a rusty spade than (ph) vote for Tory.

LANGFITT: Still, Crozier worries the Tories will win on Thursday. People here are looking for hope. And, Crozier says, Johnson's promise of a bright economic future beyond Brexit appeals in an area that's never recovered from the loss of the mines.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Bishop Auckland.

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