Halifax profile: Key marginal whose political future hangs by a thread

IN a town whose mills once clattered to the noise of a thousand looms, there is a certain irony in watching its political future hang by a thread.

Theresa May  during her party's general election manifesto launch in Halifax
Theresa May during her party's general election manifesto launch in Halifax

Elsie Whiteley knew the value of textiles to Halifax better than anyone. Born at the turn of the 20th century and put to work at 12 as a machinist, she went on to create a fashion brand which in the pre-Carnaby Street era could be seen on the West End counters of Selfridge’s and John Lewis.

If her name resonates today, it is most likely because of the “innovation centre” on Hopwood Lane which bears her name. Innovation is in short supply in the immediate surroundings, a jumble of West Riding terraces and lock-ups that say more about Halifax’s past than its future.

It is here in the Elsie Whiteley Centre, among the creative and digital startups, that Holly Lynch has her office. She has been the town’s Labour MP for just two years, selected with seven weeks’ notice and elected with a slender majority of 428 - the party’s most marginal in the region.

That might explain Theresa May’s choice of Dean Clough, a business and arts centre fashioned out of an old carpet factory just the other side of Halifax town centre, to launch the Conservative manifesto.

Ms Lynch always knew that a snap election could come. “It’s been a steep learning curve,” she says. “A lot of fairly unexpected things happened in the last two years.”

One of them would be the election of Jeremy Corbyn as her party’s leader. Last October, she resigned as a whip following his sacking of Rosie Winterton, the MP for Doncaster Central, as chief whip. As a consequence, there has been no sign of Mr Corbyn at her side as she fights Labour’s corner - an absence made all the more noticeable by his appearance in the Conservative-held Calder Valley, just four miles away.

Her principal opponent, and the one most likely to benefit from Ukip’s 5,621 votes last time, is a local councillor, Chris Pearson. Just ten per cent of those votes cast in his direction would take him to Westminster. It is his second campaign, having polled nearly a quarter of the vote in the Labour stronghold of Hemsworth in 2015.

In Halifax, as in many towns, it is local issues that dominate the agenda. Mr Pearson and Ms Lynch - as well as the Liberal Democrat James Baker, also a Halifax councillor - share a concern for the future of the town’s A&E facility, which has been under review for some time, as has the one in Huddersfield.

“The queues at A&E have been eight hours long at Calderdale Royal,” says Ms Lynch. “And if there is a downgrade over at Huddersfield, the challenge for us is to make sure that we have the capacity to cope with all those extra people. And I can’t see that we have. So, it’s looking like a lose-lose.”

Despite her differences with her party leader, she does credit Labour nationally with trying to address the failure to recruit and retain nurses, which she says is driving the proposed changes.

Mr Pearson, whose experiences caring for family members led him to set up a social care operation of his own, says the problem goes deeper than A&E. “It goes right down to self-care,” he says. “It’s about getting the right services in the right location, and about getting it right in the long term.”

He adds: “A&E is there for matters of life and death, not for when you’re drunk or you’ve stubbed your toe.”

In a town whose name is synonymous with banking, jobs in nursing are not the only ones in the candidates’ sights.

“When I was first elected, someone told me that Halifax is just like a mining town and the banking sector is the mine,” Ms Lynch says.

The old Halifax Building Society was subsumed by Lloyds and then bailed out to the tune of £20bn, but the Halifax brand lives on and the company remains a big employer, as does Nestlé.

Despite its reliance on such large investors for work, the district voted by 55 per cent to leave Europe last June, and Ms Lynch and Mr Pearson say a Brexit deal that protects employees is crucial.

Last month, Nestlé said it planned to cut jobs in Halifax and York in order to move production of its Blue Riband bars to Poland - a move linked directly to Brexit by many observers.

“Jobs underpin everything,” says Chris Pearson. “Halifax needs more investment and more job opportunities. That’s the basis on which you can fund everything else.”

James Baker echoes the views of Lib Dems nationally in promising a second-chance vote further down the line. “The situation could be very different in a couple of years’ time,” he says.