Julie Hilling is next to me pounding the pavements on a cold and wet day in Johnson Fold. The Labour candidate for the Bolton West constituency says it’s not a place you pass through, you have to hunt out the locals here.
‘We have reached more than 11,000 people in the constituency,’ she says as we exit the doorstep of a Brexiter who didn’t like Corbyn. It is worrying, although the Brexiter was grateful Julie had showed up and listened to her.
‘Nobody else has bothered to come see us,’ she said. ‘I’ve never seen that Tory man round here.’
‘I’ve spent too long on the doorstep with her, Sheila will tell me off, but I think it’s important we try to reach everyone,’ said Julie as we walked away.
Everyone in this case is all the people in her constituency across the major settlements of Smithills, Westhoughton, Horwich, Blackrod and Atherton. Under her black cloche hat her round face glows with enthusiasm and her mouth espouses honest-to-goodness let’s take care of each other politics.
‘The ground game can be won, if you have long enough to reach everyone,’ she said. ‘That’s why the Tory’s always try to call a snap general election to give us less time. They know how important talking to each other is for Labour so they try to prevent it and keep us divided at any cost. Only another 60,000 to go,’ she adds gamely.
It’s hard not to be infected by her spirit. She does, as they say, have her heart in the right place. Sure she wants her piece of the pie, at least she’s willing to work for it and share it with other people. For the last thirty years she has lived in Atherton. For a large part of that time she worked tirelessly for the Labour Party. She has campaigned for lower energy bills and against the bedroom tax and dangerous dogs following the death of 14-year-old Jade Lomas-Anderson, also from Atherton.
In 2017 and 2015 she lost to the Tory Chris Green by 936 and 801 votes respectively and subsequently it has become a battleground as one of the most contested marginal seats in the North West. She wants her majority back. It is understandable as we look around at the deprivation, Julie says she is appalled at the poverty she sees in her local constituency in the last nine years of Tory austerity.
She is not alone. Her campaign has brought together a large mish-mash of new people who want to help. Ordinary and normal folk of the kind you might see in a doctor’s waiting room or queuing at the tills in Aldi. We are corralled into shape by the stalwart Secretary of the Bolton West Labour Party Sheila Jones. Sheila is a wise old bird, who wings beat on the righteous winds of equality.
She said, ‘We had five board runners in one group alone yesterday. That means we can cover many streets in a short session and knock on lots of doors. Bolton West Labour Party has 800 members. I am grateful for all the new help we get.’
I am in stark admiration at the drive and commitment of these two women to make their world a better place. They bring out the best in me.
It is one of Sheila’s many emails, sometimes as late as two in morning that informs me about a canvassing campaign I can make the following weekend.
‘How’s it going Julie?’ I ask as we huff and puff up Ridgway Road in Blackrod.
‘We’re not there yet,’ she says with a genuine open-eyed friendliness uncharacteristic of politicians, who let’s be honest most people don’t like. ‘But the national game is kicking in as well as our ground game. We are reaching my voters now so let’s see what election day brings.’
The truth is the ground game is a grind. It is slooooooow. Only about 50% of people answer the door even though you can see the big tellies on in the windows. Windows made easier to see through due to the distinct lack of usual red posters stuck in them. Another worry. And when some people do open their doors you’re never quite sure what some people think and then with some you really are. In Bolton West it’s a mixed bag now. The lowest point was about to happen as we got to the top of the hill. It was getting dark, almost too dark to see, and the cold wind blew through my forty-six year old bones. Unsure of foot due to a bad back, I walked tentatively down the path to my next door knock. Suddenly I tripped on their disabled ramp and fell into their front door jarring my back further. A little nice as pie old lady nice hearing my entrance opened the door.
‘Hello I’m Nikki from the local Labour Party helping to get Julie Hilling elected. Are you voting in the up and coming election?’
‘Yes,’ came back a twinkly-eyed reply and warm smile, ‘are you okay?’
‘It’s just my back. I hurt it bending down to put my trainers on the other day. I’ll survive,’ I said with bravado. ‘Do you mind sharing who you are voting for?’
‘Well I want to get Brexit done.’ That was all she said.
‘Isn’t saving the NHS more important to you or having free care in your old age?’ My heart was sinking. My head hurt. All the doorstep wisdom was battering the wall of bias surrounding my brain.
I walked up the hill to where Sheila was talking to local reporter Denise Silcock. Denise, like me, was canvassing today. Sheila stopped talking and looked at me. I shook my head, ‘Twelve Mrs — Tory.’
We all kept moving along the uneven pavement. Effervescent Denise spoke knowingly of the area, ‘It used to be all staunch Labour until recently…’ her voice trailed off. We all moved on further down the street.
‘You taking this one Nikki?’ said Sheila undeterred rattled off the next house, ‘eighteen, Mr —, no postal, were Labour in 2017.’
And so you walk on with hope in your heart and knock on the next door because you just never know who will open the door. It might be a young woman who doesn’t know who to vote for and after a brief conversation she realises she should vote Labour because her Dad told her on his deathbed that she should always vote Labour, whatever you do in life he said, always vote Labour. Or it might be an old person who wants Brexit but doesn’t realise you can still have Brexit and the NHS. So you explain you will always be looked after in old age whether we are in or out of Europe. Or maybe Fred and Sonia will open the door, tanned and happy and clearly in love after years of marriage. We haven’t decided they say. We always like to talk about everything together and vote the same so we don’t cancel each other’s vote out. Sonia said this as Fred leant down and gave my daughter the Bop It toy. My Grandson loved playing with this he said, your daughter can now. You’re the first people we’ve seen this election she says. It’s either you or the Lib-Dems but I think we know who we are voting for now. Or Denise running up the hill punching her fist in the air saying ‘got her’ about her friend who was going to vote for Boris. Or closer to home, perhaps behind your own front door you have been living with your parents for two years since you had you daughter and realised that together we are stronger as a family and through a push-me-pull-me process of getting to really know each other as adults your Dad says he is ‘tempted to vote Labour’ for the first time in his life because he wants to save the NHS more than leave Europe. Being in such proximity and seeing each other’s daily grind has, in spite of our differences brought us to some common ground. Perhaps that is the real winning ticket of the ground game. Really getting to know people so even politics can’t divide us. Mind you I still want to see a photo of his ballot paper with his identifying thumb on it. I love him but I’m not daft.
Election Day is three days away.
Another evening email lands in my inbox from Sheila: ‘Jeremy Corbyn at Blackrod Community Centre tomorrow morning 7.45am.’
‘We’ll try and make it,’ I type back, honestly thinking we best go as it might be only me and my daughter in Blackrod at that time of the day.
During the last few weeks, bigger names in the Labour Party, have waded into Bolton West to lend support to Julie’s campaign. Peter Dowd, the Shadow Chief Secretary of the Treasury and Labour Party Chariman Ian Lavery. On both occasions Julie has mentioned their big majorities in stark admiration. And in the early morning light of Blackrod here comes Oh Jeremy Corbyn himself striding confidently through the crowds of people singing his name. He greets Julie with peck on the cheek. He’s come to do a live BBC Breakfast broadcast. I take a picture with Julie and Sheila, it’s a good choice of location I say, high from seeing JC – the first politician I have ever identified with in my life – and I fly on an emotional magic carpet into a state of hopeful idealism. It is Black Rod who knocks on the door of Parliament for the official State Opening. Come Thursday who will be behind those doors? Will Julie be sat back on those green seats admiring the majority of Prime Minister Corbyn too?
Blog Update: Bolton West 2019 General Election Result: CON Hold with a much reduced Labour base.