Boston & Skegness: A view from the campaign

Context

  • Conservatives have held Boston & Skegness since the constituency was created in 1997
  • Newly-elected Matt Warman won a 4,300 majority in the 2015 General Election
  • However, UKIP surged 24%, which pushed Labour into a distant third place
  • Boston’s status as the UK’s “Brexit heartland” – following a 76% Leave vote – has attracted UKIP leader Paul Nuttall to run as a candidate.

A View from the Campaign

Paul Nuttall appears to have given up hope of success. He has visited the constituency only twice during the campaign and failed to turn up to planned local radio appearances. Many predicted that he would pull out of the race following a disastrous showing in May’s local council elections in which UKIP lost all 13 of its Lincolnshire seats.

Nuttall’s decision to stand in Boston and Skegness has been met with widespread cynicism by the electorate, viewed by many as a case of Brexit opportunism. Even the UKIP candidate for neighbouring constituency Louth and Horncastle, Jonathan Noble, echoed this sentiment, “People like a local candidate and he’s effectively been parachuted in, so that will probably not be very well received. The fact he has a Liverpool accent probably doesn’t help.” Noble added, “If UKIP had picked a credible local candidate, someone with genuine ties to the constituency, that lived here and worked here, it would have gone better.”

Asked how constituents viewed Nuttall’s decision to stand, Conservative candidate Matt Warman told me, “I suppose I have to thank Sophy Ridge [the Sky News presenter].” He was referring to the car-crash interview in which Nuttall was unable to identify Boston from a series of images of UK market towns. This is the first thing many constituents mention when asked about Nuttall.

The UKIP ground effort has also left much to be desired. There is no campaign headquarters or evidence of UKIP activists putting the hard graft required in an election campaign. A party member acknowledged, “I remember campaigning at the last general election, there were very few people out there doing the footwork.” Signs of support are scattered around town in the form of campaign posters in front gardens, however the contact number does not work. Although Boston and Skegness is a target seat, it is clear that UKIP is a party with diminished funds which lacks a sophisticated grassroots operation.

Party infighting is rife and has led to numerous defections. Brian Rush, the newly-appointed Mayor of Boston, resigned from UKIP merely two weeks into the role. Labour councillors have taken to Twitter in jest, “Rumours of a new political party in Boston called UQUIT – for all those councillors that have left UKIP.” The stream of negative headlines denotes a party in disarray, which has been detected by voters who see little point in voting UKIP this time round.

Despite the recent relegation of Theresa May’s “strong and stable” rhetoric, the presidentialisation of the national campaign has encouraged Boston and Skegness voters to consider this election as a straight May vs. Corbyn decision. For an electorate with Brexit at the forefront of its mind, most trust May over Corbyn to deal with the negotiation process. One man, who described himself as a Labour-voting socialist, was clear that he will vote for Theresa May on 8 June.

Voters often speak of Theresa May rather than the Conservative Party, which I sense is a way to rationalise a first-time Tory vote in the minds of non-traditional Tory voters. It is no accident that Matt Warman’s campaign literature relegates “Conservative” references in favour of a large image of Warman and May as its centrepiece. Besides the transfer of the UKIP vote to the Conservatives, there is a sense that the traditional working-class Labour vote is tending the same way.

However, Warman is conscious that the UK’s highest Leave area is not a natural home for a Remain MP. In a Boston Market canvassing session, an angry voter accused Warman of being a “brown-nosed careerist” given his decision to vote Remain under Cameron, followed by his support for May’s “hard” Brexit agenda. During the campaign, Warman has been keen to stress that his was a 51%-49% decision to Remain. Notwithstanding this, Conservative activists, and Warman himself, appear confident about their prospects on 8 June, but repeated the need to guard against complacency. May’s so-called “dementia tax” has removed any risk of complacency.

The Conservatives will benefit from the lack of serious opposition in the area. Labour, historically Boston and Skegness’ second party before the rise of UKIP in the 2015 General Election, has opted to field Paul Kenny for a fourth time. An ardent Corbynite, Kenny’s task is a tough one: to persuade a predominantly rural constituency to adopt Labour’s left-of-centre manifesto and leadership team. UKIP is in rapid decline. Other parties are seldom mentioned.

It is hard to look past a sizeable increase in the Conservative majority come 9 June. Indeed, as one candidate said, “you could paint a donkey blue and it would be voted in around here.”

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