My sisters both live in the Romsey and Southampton North constituency and are Labour members (#romseyreds) there. That constituency has so far been firmly in Tory hands, the MP being the deeply unimpressive Caroline Nokes. But times are changing. Although this is a challenging seat for Labour, we’ve done some campaigning there as they have a great young candidate, Claire Ransom. Claire is local – she went to the Romsey Mountbatten school – and is active in trying to make change happen. Labour certainly have a chance of coming second here; they were about 1000 votes behind the Lib Dems in the last election.
Yesterday, though, we headed to a church hall in nearby ultra-marginal Southampton Itchen for an #unseatroystonsmith rally. Royston Smith won in 2017 by only 31 votes, so Labour have every chance of taking this seat. The Labour candidate is Simon Letts, a local science teacher and long-standing councillor, who served as head of Southampton council for several years.
After delivering some direct mailings to residents in some relatively comfortable streets in the Sholing district of Southampton, my sisters headed back to the hall for the rally. The local organiser, Amanda, told us that so many people had turned up that all the bags of mailings had been delivered and someone was dashing back to the office to sort out canvassing boards for after the meeting.
Gradually, the hall filled up with Labour members and supporters of all ages and backgrounds. By the time the meeting started, the hall was packed to capacity (over 300 people), with standing room only at the back. Alan Fraser, chair of Momentum in Southampton filled up the time until the speakers all arrived telling us it was the grassroots that made Labour. Whatever happens on Thursday, he said, we mustn’t let this energy fail. We have to continue on after the election as – even if we win – there’ll be hard times ahead.
Laura Parker, Momentum national coordinator said that we had something that the Tories didn’t, the people who were prepared to do the work on the ground, whether it be canvassing, phonebanking, social media, and so on. She said 1000 people had signed up for campaigning the day the election was announced.
The local candidate, Simon Letts, then spoke about local issues that he clearly knows inside out with his local background and councillor experience. He said that one of his pledges was to eliminate rough sleeping in Southampton and he’d chosen this, not because it was easy, but because it was difficult. I got the impression that he understood what the area needs and was deeply committed to delivering it.
Keir Starmer then spoke passionately about the urgent need for a transformative Labour government. Someone in the audience asked him if he was still Shadow Brexit Secretary, and he said he was hoping to get rid of the “Shadow” bit by the end of the week. He said that it’s been fantastic how many people have been getting involved and said that quite a few campaigners have come from abroad even, giving Austria as an example. The Southampton organisers pointed me out as having come from Heidelberg, which underlined this.
I have seen Starmer speak before at Labour Party Conferences, but there he has been always focusing on the Brexit topic. In this speech, my sisters and I all thought he was speaking from the heart about the need for socialism. It was very convincing. He said that on the train down Owen Jones and he had had to Google the Tory candidate, Smith, as neither of them had ever heard of him or heard him speak. (Royston Smith has the reputation of being the worst MP in Westminster.)
He was followed up by Owen Jones, who started by getting the audience fired up. He said he imagined the Tories on the day after the election when Jacob Rees-Mogg would tiredly say something in archaic Latin, which could be roughly translated as “Oh, bugger”. Jones said Simon Letts was a great candidate, although he didn’t know where he was. (He’d had to dash off for a radio interview just after his speech.)
The conclusion was that we have all to play for but that there were still undecided voters and that we’d need to give our all in the last few days, not stopping until 15 minutes before the polls closed.
As well as the speakers, Labour’s general secretary, Jennie Formby (who lives in Southampton) was there, and also the Labour candidate for Winchester, George Baker.