Conservatives on course for first South Yorkshire victory since 1992 in wake of 'chicken run' MP

The four candidates to be Penistone and Stocksbridge's new MP (clockwise from top left): Miriam Cates, Francyne Johnson, John Booker and Hannah Kitching
The four candidates to be Penistone and Stocksbridge's new MP (clockwise from top left): Miriam Cates, Francyne Johnson, John Booker and Hannah Kitching
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Penistone and Stocksbridge has a rather unusual, and certainly unwanted, claim to fame. Since the South Yorkshire constituency was formed for the 2010 General Election, it has only ever returned the same Labour MP – but has been represented by four different political groups.

Angela Smith left Labour this February in protest at its Brexit position and Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. After joining Change UK, she quit to briefly sit as an independent MP then became a member of a grouping calling themselves The Independents in July before joining the Liberal Democrats in September.

Angela Smith's changes of party in her final year as the area's MP caused controversy.

Angela Smith's changes of party in her final year as the area's MP caused controversy.

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She has now embarked on what is known in Westminster as a ‘chicken run’ – standing for her latest party in the different seat of Altrincham and Sale West.

It means the race is now well and truly on to replace her as the MP for the constituency covering the villages and towns which make up the north-east of Sheffield and the south-west of Barnsley. All four new candidates are local to the area, with the Labour and Conservative candidates even attending the same state secondary, King Edward VII School, which sits in the neighbouring Sheffield Hallam constituency, a few years apart.

Smith clung on to the Leave-voting seat in the 2017 election with a majority of just 1,322 from Conservative Nicola Wilson.

The seat is once again in Tory sights and Boris Johnson visited the constituency in September to meet the party’s new candidate, Miriam Cates. The 37-year-old former science teacher is hopeful that she can become the first Conservative MP to win in South Yorkshire since 1992 when Irvine Patnick retained his seat in Sheffield Hallam.

Speaking earlier this week before the YouGov projection was published, she said: “I think it will be close between us and Labour and I can’t call it but I think we have got a very good chance.”

YouGov poll predictions this week have suggested not only is she on course to win the seat and currently holds a nine per cent margin over Labour but the Tories are also set to take Rother Valley and Don Valley in South Yorkshire.

Getting involved with the PTA at her children’s school in the village of Oughtibridge led to Cates becoming an independent parish councillor in 2015. The self-described “floating voter” then decided to stand for council election after becoming “extremely frustrated” with what she felt was Labour-run Sheffield Council’s lack of ambition for the area.

Cates, who voted Remain, admits she considered joining the Liberal Democrats before joining the Conservatives in early 2018 and unsuccessfully standing for council election in Stannington - albeit while increasing the party's vote share from six per cent to 17 per cent.

“I thought how do you get elected in Sheffield? I considered joining the Liberal Democrats but I just didn’t fit. To be honest I wanted to be elected. I looked at what are my chances in Sheffield and the Lib Dems do have a few councillors. But I couldn’t square the policy of wanting to remain after people have voted to leave.”

She says local people feel let down by Angela Smith. “They are very angry. They don’t know how they ended up with a Liberal Democrat MP when last time they got about four per cent of the vote. They don’t understand why there wasn’t a by-election when she initially left Labour."

Cates says she can promise voters she will not be changing party if elected and fully supports Boris Johnson’s plans for Brexit.

“I get so many emails from people who say ‘We’ve been so let down, can you promise me you will vote for this agreement that will get us out of the EU?’ I reply to every single one and promise ‘Yes I will’. But you can see why people are mistrustful.

“I’ve had a very lucky escape from joining the Lib Dems. Like a lot of people I didn’t know a lot about party politics and how it worked. But in the nearly two years since I’ve been in the Tory party I have found my home.

“I voted for Remain. I didn’t have a clue how to vote the whole campaign and in the end I voted for the status quo because I thought it would be too hard to get out. My husband voted to leave. But I’ve genuinely changed my mind because of what I have learnt about the EU since then. I think it is undemocratic and a waste of money.

"We live in a democracy and I have spoken to so many people who voted for the first time in 2016. If we don’t deliver Brexit, every time we go to the polls from now on people are going to think, ‘Is this one going to be recognised?’ We have got to do this to restore faith in democracy.”

Cates says she understands how difficult it is for lifelong Labour voters to switch to the Conservatives. “Some people get very emotional when they are talking about it. I think I have a duty to show those people what a Conservative Government and MP can do for them. I will never take the votes of those people for granted, I know how much it has cost them to come to that decision.”

Her point has been demonstrated by local businessman Mark Dransfield, who is behind the Fox Valley retail park in Stocksbridge.

He told Radio Sheffield this week that despite being a lifelong Labour voter and being “disgusted” with the vote for Brexit, he is now backing Boris Johnson because of his fears about what a Corbyn government would do to Britain.

“If Jeremy Corbyn gets in, I think we will be bankrupt,” he said.

Labour candidate Francyne Johnson, who worked in the voluntary sector with children from deprived areas and with adults with learning disabilities before becoming a Labour councillor in Stocksbridge in 2018 says the NHS and climate change are bigger doorstep issue than Brexit.

She says she is “really, really optimistic” about her chances but admits the reaction to Corbyn on the doorstep has been “mixed”.

“It is not about one person, it is about the policies, it is about NHS and schools. You don’t stop supporting a football team because you don’t like the manager.”

Johnson is initially reluctant to say how she voted in 2016 but eventually confirms she backed Remain.

She says that she believes Labour’s stance of getting a renegotiated deal with the EU before putting it to another referendum against Remain is the “only sensible policy” from the major parties.

Johnson joined the Labour party in 2013 when she was pregnant.“I thought what kind of future is my daughter going to have? I was starting to see the impact cuts were having in northern Yorkshire communities.”

Johnson says she believes voters have generally moved on from the issues surrounding Angela Smith’s changes of party and see this election as a fresh start - but adds she has no intention of changing party herself should she be elected.

“Honestly it doesn’t come up that much,” she says. “But I have made it very clear what I represent is true Labour values. My grandad was a miner, my dad was a self-employed builder, I was the first person in my family to go to university.”

Running for the Liberal Democrats is Penistone councillor Hannah Kitching, who stood last year to become Sheffield City Region mayor - finishing third behind the winner, Labour’s Dan Jarvis.

While Angela Smith finished her time as the area’s MP as a Liberal Democrat, the party’s 2017 General Election result suggests it has little chance of retaining the seat after finishing last behind Ukip.

However, since then the Lib Dems have been enjoying a surge in support at a local level - with six councillors elected in the area across Sheffield and Barnsley councils since May 2018.

Kitching, a former NHS physio who now runs a knife-manufacturing business with her husband, has been assisted in her campaign by the Green Party dropping out in the area as part of the ‘Unite to Remain’ electoral pact.

She says the Lib Dems are the “only pro-Remain party” on the ballot paper but admits the party’s stance does not appeal to every voter in the Leave-backing constituency.

However, recent analysis by the Centre for Towns think-tank has suggested support for Labour in Yorkshire has dropped by around 20 per cent in towns like Barnsley since 2017, with Conservative support also falling by five per cent – figures Kitching says matches her experience on the doorstep.

“We are a good choice for people who don’t want Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn. We are going to see some real surprises in this election. I’m well aware of the 2017 result and I know what it looks like on paper but the analysis pretty much matches what we are finding on the doorstep."

When asked whether she is concerned an increased Liberal Democrat vote will lead to a Conservative victory and therefore make Brexit more likely, she says: “As Liberal Democrats, we don’t just take Labour voters. If we didn’t stand in this constituency, it doesn’t mean all our voters would go to Labour, there are previous Conservative Remainers who will support us.

“It is not my job to cooperate with the Labour party because they have an unpopular leader.”

Brexit Party candidate John Booker – the only candidate to vote Leave in 2016 – told Radio Sheffield this week it is important for smaller parties to stand.

“I believe that unless we break the chain and stop voting for the same old parties we will get the same old results. I’m no fan of the Labour party but do we all sit down and let the Labour Party and Conservative Party carve up everything between them? Sometimes you have to stand up for what you believe in.”

Yet another political change is on the cards in Penistone and Stocksbridge. But this time it will be voters rather than the incumbent MP who determines it.

Transport problems high on the agenda

Improving “terrible” public transport links will be high on the agenda for whoever is elected as Penistone and Stocksbridge’s new MP.

Francyne Johnson, Miriam Cates and Hannah Kitching all cited public transport as a key priority.

There have been concerns about the impact of rural bus cuts as well as calls for Sheffield’s tram network to be extended to the area as well as reopening passenger rail services between Stocksbridge and Sheffield.

Johnson says Labour plans to bring bus companies into public ownership would assist the area, Kitching says she wants more joined up bus services between the Sheffield and Barnsley districts while Cates says the Tories are promising £220m for buses across the country.

Voters at a bus stop in Stocksbridge were divided on how bad public transport is in the area but did not say it would be a deciding factor in their vote.

One man said he was more concerned about the candidates running.

“I don’t trust any of them. The last MP abandoned us. I didn’t vote for her but I think they should be made to stand for election again if they change party.”

One woman said Sunday bus services in particular are “terrible” but said the issue would be unlikely to influence her vote.

“I’m not sure yet who I’ll vote for,” she said.