Simon Letts has a kind face. You’d probably be able to guess he was a science teacher for 20 years – the kind that probably wouldn’t bollock you for dicking around with Bunsen burners, but would try to channel that fascination into a genuine love for science. It’s a cold, overcast Saturday morning when we meet next to a car park in Southampton city centre.
Simon has stood twice to be MP for Southampton Itchen in as many years, and the Labour candidate’s enthusiasm for his city is contagious. We talk about bumping into old students on the doorstep and walking the pavements talking to people about their issues, their needs and desires. “The thing I find most exciting is our proposal for a National Education Service,” he tells me. “I met a young woman on the doorstep last Saturday and she wants to train as a senior teaching assistant. Under the Tories, she has to pay for that herself but a Labour government would support her in that.”
In 2017, Letts lost to Tory incumbent Royston Smith by just 31 votes. His constituency is home to two universities – the University of Southampton and Solent University – identified by VICE as key to swinging the election.
“There’s a large population of students living in the city centre,” he tells me. “In the last election, 1,000 new people registered to vote before the poll and we lost by 31. In our neighbouring constituency of Southampton Test, 4,000 people registered to vote before the poll, and they won by 11,000 – I think there may be something in that.”
Over 50 Labour Party campaigners, members and activists have arrived for ‘Student Saturdays’, in an attempt to get the 5,000 or so students resident in the area registered. There are over 30,000 students enrolled across the two unis here.
Party officials believe they hold the key to stopping another five years of Tory rule – something that Simon says would be a disaster for the Southampton. “Despite the kind words of Mr Johnson, though I don’t generally believe a word he says, another five years would see a continuation of the devastating impact of austerity here.”
According to Labour’s Tory cuts calculator, households in Southampton Itchen have lost £486.84 since 2010, with £34.27 million cut across the whole council. Smith has voted for reductions in spending on welfare benefits 22 times in his four years in Parliament. In that time, he’s also voted against higher taxes for banks on eight occasions and in favour of reducing corporation tax nine times.
“We’ve got an absolute crisis in our local NHS – it’s almost impossible to get a doctor’s appointment with long queues at A&E,” Simon tells me. “Schools funding is a massive issue, particularly for kids with special educational needs – they’re not getting the funding they deserve.”
As we talk, organisers argue about permission forms. Someone is planning to do some filming for social media and a group of activists who’ve just arrived from neighbouring Portsmouth haven’t signed any yet. As they’re hurriedly filled in, another organiser bellows to implore everyone to set off before the rain starts.
Matt, a 20-year-old physics student studying in the city, had never canvassed before. He’d been paired up with Mark, 24, who’d come down from Portsmouth, dressed in his NHS scrubs to help with the efforts.
“We’ve just started out today, but so far we’ve had a pretty good response,” Matt says as we cower under a hedge, away from the increasingly ferocious downpour. “The guy we just spoke too seemed enthusiastic. He didn’t know who he was voting for yet but seemed to agree with most of our points, so I’m hopeful.”
The conversation quickly turns to Brexit, and the difficulties that the Labour party’s position (or perceived position) can create on the doorstep.
“What you’ve got to understand specifically about Brexit is that a lot of people are already decided on what they want,'' Mark says. “They either want to stay, or they want to leave. A lot of people feel very strongly about these issues, but most of them are quite happy to talk to us if we make it clear at the start that Labour is not an outright Remain or Brexit supporting party.”
Despite Mark’s confidence, Brexit remains one of the more difficult aspects of Labour party policy to sell. In Southampton, 53.8 percent of the electorate voted to leave, but the students and young people whom Labour hope will swing the seat for them are overwhelmingly remain. Finding a moderate stance on the issue has become increasingly difficult as positions have hardened. Many in the party worry that Brexit would define the conversation on the doorstep, and possibly cost them at the ballot box. But that hasn’t been the experience of some canvassing in Southampton Itchen.
“It’s been a really mixed bag, but Brexit has come up a lot less than I expected it too,” Libby tells me, her clothes drenched through but spirits still high. “There are some people who are very firmly against Labour and Conservative because they want to leave with no deal and they’re really frustrated, but actually that’s been quite a minority of the conversation.”
Libby is a teacher in Southampton with young children. She couldn’t canvas in 2017 (“the kids were even younger then!”) but has been driven out into the bleak midwinter by the need to see change. “People think their vote won’t make a difference. So many people I’ve spoken to are apathetic, but last time we lost by 31 votes. The parents of one of my classes voting one way or another could swing the whole seat. That’s primarily why I’m out here today – to tell people it does matter!”
The team of 50 or so canvassers knock on hundreds of doors this morning, urging people to register to vote, and to vote Labour if they do. University student Molly answers the door in last night’s clothes, but she takes a Labour poster from the canvassers and affixed it to the window in her house.
“I’m hopeful that Labour can win here,” she says. “I’ve never voted here before because I just study in the city, but I’m changing where I vote because it makes all the difference. I think a lot of people are doing that as the message about how close it is here gets through.”
It’s exactly what Simon and the his team in Southampton pray will happen. Across the country, so many different issues are at play. There are so many things to be won and lost in this election that it’s too difficult to even begin to predict how it will go or what will sway people.
There’s hope amongst the confusion, though. Tens of thousands of ordinary people – students, musicians, teachers, business owners, labourers, doctors, bus drivers and more – are all wrapping up and marching the streets of constituencies like Southampton Itchen across the country, clutching Labour leaflets and fighting for a different kind of society.
As I leave the church hall the growing number of canvassers are using for a short break to dry out before going back out for the afternoon, I can’t help but feel secretly optimistic. Maybe this time, change really is coming.