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Election 2019: Reflections from Penistone and Stocksbridge

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Labour activists campaigning for Francyne Johnson.

During the fall of the red wall, Sheffield kept its nerve. Labour MPs in the city centre, Hillsborough and Heeley all held onto solid, if slightly diminished majorities. In Hallam, socialist candidate Olivia Blake beat a gloomy exit poll to deliver one of the few hopeful moments of the night.

But the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire is now surrounded by a sea of blue. To the north-west of the city, Angela Smith represented the semi-rural Penistone and Stocksbridge constituency since its creation in 2010. In February 2019, Smith defected from Labour to the short-lived Change UK before later joining The Independents and finally the Liberal Democrats. She chose not to seek re-election, opting instead to contest a Manchester seat, where she came third.

A new candidate, Francyne Johnson, ran for Labour in Penistone and Stocksbridge. On December 12, the vote swung heavily to science teacher and business owner Miriam Cates of the Conservative Party, who has now established a 14-point lead over Labour.

I think Brexit played a big part in it

'It's part of a national trend', Johnson told Now Then. 'Our results were very much in line with a lot of the northern leave seats that have gone over to the Tories.'

According to a House of Commons estimate, 60 per cent of the seat's constituents voted to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum. 'I think Brexit played a big part in it,' said Johnson. 'I also think Jeremy Corbyn was a common issue on the doorstep, and I do think a lot of that is how he's been portrayed in the media.'

Research published by Loughborough University throughout the campaign found that media coverage was biased in favour of the Tories. The report read: 'The overall high level of negativity towards the Labour Party has remained constant throughout the election campaign.'

Johnson also raised the stream of misinformation on social media as a factor in results, which she described as 'weapons-grade psy-ops.' Johnson explained, 'It's what happened with Trump, it's what happened with Bolsonaro, and this is now happening in the UK. We are fully into post-Trump, post-Putin politics.'

An anti-Corbyn campaign was also underway offline. The night before the vote, hundreds of posters were illegally flyposted across the constituency, featuring a picture of Corbyn and the caption: 'Would you trust this man with your children?'

The posters, which Labour have reported to the police and the Electoral Commission, come from the Campaign Against Corbynism. Now Then contacted the group who said that the flyposting had not been approved by the campaign and that they had asked supporters to only put posters up in their windows.

Angela in many ways typifies the kind of politician that the electorate so despise

Johnson, who is a councillor in Stocksbridge, has also seen a spike in hate crime since the election. The day after the vote she received reports of a transphobic assault by people 'clearly celebrating the election results', as well as racist graffiti daubed on a takeaway.

Cates is the first Conservative elected to the constituency, or its predecessors. Days into the job, she has already faced criticism over her ownership of an app that charges food banks to advertise for items they need. When asked about this, she pointed Now Then to a recent statement in which she denied profiteering from food banks, which says that the app 'cost us - and continues to cost us - thousands of pounds to develop and support.'

Despite now charging a one-off fee of £180, the app originally charged food banks £360 every two years. Cates, along with her husband, also own a Sheffield-based software company Redemption Media. Its clients include the NHS as well as pharmaceutical giants AstraZeneca and Novartis.

Cates replaces the 14-year incumbent Smith, who had her own links to private industry. For the thousands that joined the Party since 2015, Smith represented a tarnished generation of Labour MPs. Her public criticism of the Shadow Chancellor's announced plans for water nationalisation drew ire when it was revealed that private water companies repeatedly bought her Sheffield Wednesday tickets worth hundreds of pounds.

Smith also chaired an all-party parliamentary water group part-funded by some of the UK's biggest water companies. This brazenly cynical style of politics was too much for Labour members in her constituency, who passed a vote of no confidence in her leadership in November 2018, citing among other things her links to the water industry.

'Angela in many ways typifies the kind of politician that the electorate so despise,' secretary of the local Constituency Labour Party Phil Newing told Now Then.

'It seemed to many that she moved her allegiance to where she best thought it served her own career. The allegations made during the expenses scandal damaged her as did her support for the fracking industry and the privatised water industry.'

In 2009, it was reported that Smith had bought four beds for a one-bedroom London flat on expenses. She also employed her own husband, Steve Wilson, as a parliamentary assistant. Wilson was a Labour councillor in Sheffield from 2011 until he quit the party in February 2019, after facing a deselection battle.

Although Johnson says that Smith 'didn't actually come up that much on the doorstep', Newing believes that she contributed to a wider lack of trust in the party that helped turn the seat blue.

'Angela was a sideshow, and has now become a "one hit wonder" career politician who many here in Penistone and Stocksbridge feel put their desire for office above any deeply felt commitment to a cause, or loyalty to her constituents and supporters,' Newing explained.

That reputation might have cost her former party a seat.

Sam Gregory

This article was originally published in Red Pepper.

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Sinister posters from the Campaign Against Corbynism. Photo by Francyne Johnson.
by Sam Gregory (he/him)

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