In Harold Wilson’s hometown, two men who stood for Parliament in the same year he became Prime Minister for the second time are vying to become its MP. Chris Burn reports.
Forty-five years ago, they were among the unsuccessful Parliamentary candidates in the second General Election of 1974, which was won by Labour and secured Harold Wilson’s position as Prime Minister for the second time. Now, as they both approach the age of 80, Barry Sheerman and Ken Davy are battling it out to become MP in Wilson’s hometown of Huddersfield, in one of the most unusual election contests of 2019.
Former university lecturer Sheerman has been a Labour MP in Huddersfield since 1979 and has known his Conservative opponent, millionaire businessman Ken Davy, for decades – even supporting efforts for him to be honoured for his work in the community.
“Until fairly recently, I was part of a group trying to get him a knighthood,” Sheerman reveals with a laugh. “I help lots of people who deserve it and he did deserve it.”
He says he was meeting with people hoping to get Davy an honour at Westminster in 2017 when their discussions were interrupted by Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election.
Sheerman says his support for Davy’s honour is on ice. “I think everyone would go quiet in these circumstances.”
Speaking to the two men separately reveals a mutual respect between them – apart from on one key issue. Sheerman describes Davy as an “extreme Brexiteer” while Davy says Sheerman is a “rampant Remainer”.
Despite being at an age where most people have long since retired (Sheerman is 79 and Davy 78), both say their passion for politics is undimmed.
Sheerman, who is defending a 12,000 majority in the Huddersfield seat after the Conservatives finished second in 2017, was born in Middlesex in 1940. He was working as a university lecturer in Wales when he decided to go into politics after his first daughter died at birth.
Sheerman, who went on to have four other children with his wife Pamela and is now a grandfather of 12, says: “It was horrendous to go through. Once I had come through the grieving process, I thought I don’t want to lecture any longer. I wanted to be able to change the world and make it a better place.”
He initially got elected as a local councillor in Wales - using his full name Barry John Sheerman on the ballot paper to capitalise on the popularity of then-Welsh rugby player Barry John. “My agent said that must have been worth at least a couple of hundred votes,” he laughs.
After serving as a councillor for seven years, Sheerman was selected as the Labour candidate for the October 1974 by-election in the safe Tory seat of Taunton. He finished second and was selected as the party’s candidate for Huddersfield East in 1979.
The Huddersfield East constituency was subsequently abolished but Sheerman was elected as Huddersfield MP in 1983 and has represented the constituency ever since.
He says being an opposition MP in divided 1980s Britain was extremely challenging. “It was tough. People talk about austerity and austerity has been tough on so many people but that period of Mrs Thatcher was very tough. In 1982 we were looking like we had a very strong possibility of winning an election but then came the Falklands War and her fortunes turned around.”
He became close to John Smith when he was Labour leader in the early 1990s and was the party’s spokesman on disabled people’s rights at the time. Sheerman lived in the same block of flats in London as Smith and was there when his friend suffered a fatal heart attack in May 1994.
“To see John coming out and knowing the worst when I saw him being taken to the ambulance was heartbreaking. We were sure he was going to be Prime Minister.”
Three years later, Labour won a landslide election victory under Tony Blair - something Sheerman says was “exhilarating” after almost two decades in Opposition.. He says despite Blair’s current unpopularity with many Labour members, the party achieved “tremendous” things in power, such as the introduction of the minimum wage.
“People are not always kind about Harold Wilson but he won elections and they are not kind about Tony Blair but he won elections.”
Sheerman admits reaction on the doorstep to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has been “very mixed” but says while some previously staunch working-class Labour voters are deserting the party, a new demographic is taking their place with increasing numbers of young people and ethnic minorities becoming actively involved in campaigning.
He has become a passionate pro-EU politician and drew considerable controversy in 2017 when he said better educated people voted for Remain. He says today the remarks in a BBC interview still get brought up to him but he stands completely by them.
“I don’t regret it. I’m a social scientist. I look at the facts and the truth was in those parts of the country that had higher levels of education and skills including every university town voted to Remain. That is still the truth. I run every election on integrity, honesty and loyalty. There is a correlation. It wasn’t condescending, it was the truth.”
While Sheerman has been in Parliament since the 1970s, Davy has not been involved in frontline politics since that decade, but has now decided to return because of his passion for Brexit.
“I get on very well with Barry beyond the fact he is a rampant Remainer,” he says. “17.4 million people voted to leave the EU and yet Parliament, including Barry Sheerman, have done everything possible to prevent Brexit being completed.”
Davy backed the Brexit Party in the European elections earlier this year in protest at Theresa May’s intended Withdrawal Agreement but says Leavers should avoid Nigel Farage's party at this election. “The only way you will get Brexit completed is via a Conservative Government.”
Born in Bridlington in 1941, Davy grew up in Filey and left school at 15. One of his first part-time jobs was selling almanacs door-to-door and he showed early business acumen by realising the fastest way to reach the most customers was to sell on terraced streets rather than leafier areas with detached houses spread more widely apart.
He smilingly says he is now using the same approach with his political campaigning at this election.
“It is the same principle. We are out campaigning, we are getting a really good response. I would always try to go where there are opportunities to meet more people than just a big house.”
He went on to become a photographer, initially working on cruise ships before opening his own business in Huddersfield.
He then became a life insurance salesman, as well as being elected as a borough councillor in 1968 and stood as the Conservative candidate in the then Labour-Liberal marginal seat of Colne Valley three times – in 1970 and the two 1974 elections.
“When I first got involved in politics, The Financial Times called me ‘the typical working-class Tory’,” he recalls. “I think they meant it as an insult but I took it as a compliment.”
Davy decided to take a step back from frontline politics to concentrate on his family and starting his own business. It proved to be a prudent decision – DBS, the independent financial advice company he established in 1979, was sold for £75m in 2001.
During that time, he also became well-known in the town in a sporting context – taking over as chairman of Huddersfield Giants rugby league club in the 1990s, a position he retains to this day.
He was also chairman of Huddersfield Town for seven years after rescuing the club from administration in 2003. But his reputation with Town supporters can charitably be described as mixed after being tarnished by a row over stadium ownership when he left in 2009.
After selling DBS, Davy went on to establish a new company called SimplyBiz which he runs to this day.
Davy admits winning will be an uphill struggle but says many past Labour supporters are opposed to Corbyn’s leadership.
“In some areas, the very name is toxic. He would bring philosophies that are so foreign to the fundamental nature of the British people that it is a frightening prospect.
“I remember Harold Wilson well. I think Harold Wilson would be turning in his grave at the prospect of Corbyn as Prime Minister. While Harold Wilson was a socialist, he was not a Marxist. What we have seen in the past with nationalisation – and I was around at the time – is that it doesn’t work. You end up with ever-increasing tax rates, ever-less efficient industries and the ordinary people end up paying for what are nothing less than social experiments.”
These are claims that Sheerman strongly disputes. Despite admitting he is seen as a “middle-of-the-road” Labour politician, Sheerman says he supports the party’s manifesto and its “common sense” efforts to renationalise industries such as water, energy and rail.
And he adds that Davy’s characterisation of Corbyn as a Marxist who Wilson would have abhorred is wrong.
“I’m an old-fashioned Christian socialist. In the Labour tent there are a whole range of different kinds of opinions and influence. It has always been a competition between those different traditions. Harold Wilson was a very different tradition, Tony Blair was a very different tradition.
“There is no doubt that the Labour party with the election of Jeremy Corbyn went more towards the left of the party and more influenced by the Marxist tradition. He is a socialist but he has got a blend of influences. He’s not a great intellectual, he’s much more intuitive. He has spent a lot of time campaigning for the underdog.
“I think Harold would have said the Labour party has moved a bit too left for me but that group of policies they are offering to the public would end up rebalancing the public-private balance in Britain to what is similar to countries like Germany. That is not exactly a revolutionary step.”
Despite having millions in the bank and a company to run while being in his late 70s, Davy says returning to the political fray is just an extension of his internal drive.
“I want to wake up every day with a sense of purpose and I want to achieve something. Sometimes you can achieve success, other times you stub your toe. But it is that determination to keep moving forward. You have to keep going and continue to strive for the results that you want.”
For Sheerman’s part, he says his ambition to remain in politics is undimmed. “There is still so much to do in this town of Huddersfield, in Yorkshire and our country. I want to go back to Parliament as a voice of reason.”
An old-fashioned political battle awaits in Huddersfield.
Other candidates set out their stalls
Three other candidates are standing in the Huddersfield seat at this election – Stuart Hale for the Brexit Party, Andrew Cooper for the Green Party and James Wilkinson for the Liberal Democrats.
Cooper has been a Kirklees councillor since 1999 and is a member of the EU Committee of the Regions.
Wilkinson, an accountant, said when his candidacy was announced: “My top priority in Parliament will be to stop a damaging Brexit, whether by revoking Article 50 or having a People’s Vote.”
Hale, who has worked as a global development manager for Jaguar Land Rover, has said: “Our democracy is at stake here and needs defending, more than ever, as the UK is leaving the European Union.”