Mary lives in a small town in Derbyshire. Her home is immaculate and full of photos of her four children, three grand-children and five great-grandchildren. She makes a pot of tea in a bone china teapot, and proffers a tin of biscuits that she’d been out specially to buy. Her living room reminds me of my granny’s old flat, and somehow it smells the same.
The first thing we talk about is loss. One of 15 children, Mary’s father was killed in an accident at work when she was young. And Mary lost her husband nine years ago, suddenly, to cancer. He just ‘walked in one day and he said I think I’ve got what my friend has got’. His death left her feeling as though ‘half her body had gone’ and she didn’t go out for a year. I watched her address his empty chair for the rest of the day, with tears collecting in the corner of her eyes.
When I ask Mary about her values, she talks about her family. She has always tried to do her best for her children, and ‘bring them up to be honest, and respect people’. She has ‘never, ever, liked kids swearing’. In a family, Mary tells me, you are “always there for one another”. Mary also values fairness and moderation: “I’ve got all I want, I’m not a greedy person, I just like to be able to pay my way, and I’m happy.”
Mary has always voted Labour because she was brought up to believe that Labour were ‘for the working-class people’. But she’s clear that that sense of purpose seems to have eroded, telling me that over the past few years Labour hasn’t ‘been how they should be’. Even though Labour isn’t currently in government, Mary seems to blame Labour for the changes that she has seen in her community: “They’re closing that many places down… they’ve even finished with the job centre up here…I’m not prejudiced, or anything like that, I love different cultures, and that. But, you can bet, every other shop up this street, it’s takeaways, you know, there’s nothing for the young ones… we used to have dance halls to go to, and cinemas and that.”
Mary’s concern about jobs and about immigration seem to go hand in hand. Her grandchildren, she tells me, have to achieve difficult qualifications in order to secure one of a vanishing number of jobs, whereas “people can come in to this country, and get a job with no qualifications”. It was her worry about jobs that led her to vote to leave the European Union. “I thought I was doing the right thing… just hoping that jobs would get better.”
From the stories she tells me throughout the day, it strikes me that Mary feels quite insecure. The changes in her community have unsettled her, because she feels increasingly disconnected and alone. Her friend has recently been burgled, and she’s worried about crime because she lives on her own. She doesn’t watch the news because it upsets her. Confronted by mortality, she wants to believe in God but can’t reconcile divinity with events she can’t make sense of. She tells me about a five-year-old child from down the road who died suddenly from a brain tumour, and tells me that: “God wouldn’t let things happen like that.”
Mary isn’t politically engaged. She is uncomfortable discussing the 2017 election and can’t tell me anything about Labour’s policy offer. But it is striking how much the hardship she has faced has shaped her politics. She recalls how her father’s company left her mother destitute after he was killed at work, allocating just £20 a month to feed and clothe the whole family. “We did struggle”, Mary tells me, “and I think you appreciate things more, when you’ve struggled.” The rest of the day is peppered with stories of the challenges her family has faced throughout her life. It is unfair, she tells me, that her daughter has to work until she is 67 before she gets a pension, especially after a lifetime of her husband ‘abusing her terrible’. It’s not fair that her granddaughter will have to reduce her hours at work because it will cost more than she’s earning to put her son into nursery. Mary doesn’t know what she would have done without the NHS, which has been there for her through some of her toughest times.
But injustice is not the only thing that has shaped her Labour identity. She started voting Labour before she’d experienced so much hardship because her ‘mum and [her] brothers voted Labour.’ And she also feels that Labour representatives are ‘like’ her: “Conservatives, they seem to speak down on the working-class, whereas the Labour, they’re on your level… I think you feel more at ease speaking to a Labour councillor.” Dennis Skinner, a local MP, is the target of praise. He’s a local man, from a local family, who ‘speaks his mind’.
Mary’s political perspective is surprisingly local. When I ask her for Labour’s main strengths and weaknesses, she tells me that the local Labour councillors live locally but aren’t responsive enough: “The councillors up here, you know, they’re not what they should be. They don’t keep to their word at all.” Her political concerns centre on the streets in her immediate surroundings; the shops she goes to and the trees that obstruct the pavement. As her age has advanced, and as she’s lost loved ones, her world seems to have narrowed and the once insignificant has grown in importance.
When I ask Mary to describe an average Labour voter, she told me, simply: “I think I am honest and fair.” She can’t see herself changing her vote because she’s ‘done it for years and years’. But it is habit and history that motivate her to put the cross in the box. I leave with the distinct sense that she no longer feels the Labour party is on her side.
This interview is taken from For The Many? You can read the report here.
To read the interview with Devon, click here.
To read the interview with George, click here.
To read the interview with David, click here.
To read the interview with Michael, click here.
To read the interview with Yasmin, click here.