Since she was three months old, Robin Blair has been sitting in the back of her fruit and vegetable stand – in a carrier bag underneath, as far as her mother used to work. Now 77 years old, she is one of the last shops in the historic market in Darlington, the ‘Red Wall’ city won by the Tories in 2019, where Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak will host their Northeast on Tuesday night.
Cost of living issues will dominate the rest of the campaign. In Darlington, energy bills are expected to rise to around 15% of median after-tax household income.
Blair says he’s had tough times in the past, but admits he was worried about shocking prices this winter. “I think the government needs to dig deep — when things are good, they’re quick to tax,” he says. “Our biggest concern is fuel; We are both producers and growers of the old-fashioned market. ,
She also fears for the future of the city and the vacant shops on the High Street. Trendy bars and cafes have popped up in old townhouses on Darlington’s charming streets, but there are gaps in large retail space that only big brands can afford.
Business owners and high street shoppers tingle with the thought that the government can no longer provide help with bills and a sense of the inevitability that it must come anyway. Earlier in the day, the truss doubled as it refused to provide vital assistance to those with soaring energy bills this winter.
“People will not be able to pay their bills. It’s Simple’: David Jackson at his booth in the market. Photo: Gary Calton/The Observer
David Jackson, Market Hall’s last butcher, has cautious praise for Peter Gibson, the city’s new Conservative MP. But he says his business is facing “astronomical” costs. “People will not be able to pay their bills. It’s easy,” he says. He roughly expects Sunak to win: “He was chancellor, he should know something.”
Away from the high street, David Ells says his health depends on machines that require electricity, with his bills already running up to £200 a month.
His daughter Sue McQuillan, who recently returned from a stay in Turkey, is furious at the government’s help. “We have not held any of our national assets, no energy companies, no water, no auto manufacturing. They don’t even survive the billions in profits that these companies make here.”
Darlington enjoys totem status for conservatives. In 2017, pollster John Curtis tipped the seat that would win Theresa May’s new and larger majority.
Instead, Labor took the seat and May lost her majority. A member of the Shadow Cabinet commented at the time that the greatest achievement of the 2017 campaign was not winning Canterbury but capturing Darlington, particularly after the Conservatives’ victory in Tees Valley mayoralty.
Elizabeth Hackwell says Sunak is a “chancellor who doesn’t pay taxes and speaks for us”. Photo: Gary Calton/The Observer
In 2019, the Labor constituency spelled its downfall, toppling Shadow Secretary Jenny Chapman. But many in the city say they believe the city will turn red again — without specifically saying they will change their voice.
Emma Kane, a beautician, and her husband Adam, who works in manufacturing, say they consider their household income comfortable and are even concerned about upcoming prices.
Both say they are voting uncertain whether Labor will make a big difference. “Work spends a lot of time saying what’s wrong instead of being the solution,” she says.
The Conservatives are determined to keep the seat – and the seat received particular attention from Sunak as chancellor, whose Richmond constituency makes him a close neighbor. Last year Darlington was selected for Treasury North – a new business complex for the Department.
Labor has been undone by “Brexit, Corbyn and complacency”, says Chris McEwan, a local labor adviser. Photo: Gary Calton/The Observer
The move is a source of civic pride in the city, but some suspect the new jobs will benefit locals – and the announcement has already had an impact on property prices.
Elizabeth Hackwell says she is deeply suspicious of the “local boy” fad, calling her “a chancellor who doesn’t pay taxes and burdens us with them”. She says Darlington will “return to Labour” but says people were outraged that the Brexit vote was ignored. “Boris did it and we can continue now.”
It’s an uphill battle for Labour, the Council also lost in 2019 and there is internal frustration at the prospect of regaining control next year. Longtime councilman Chris McEwan says the party has been crushed by “Brexit, Corbyn and complacency” and the third of these is still hardest hit.
He says Labor has “a long way to go” to make its proposal public. “We need to focus more on energy companies — these are unusual gains. The government should step in and I don’t think they are ready to do that. It’s for the good of the economy.”
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McEwan says the impact of the cost-of-living crisis is now so bad in some parts of the city that Covid-era costs are rising for mutual aid groups, involving local churches and charities, to provide emergency relief to people experiencing poverty. In has been remodeled.
He says the city still has a strong sense of community and Labor can show they are on their side. “There is a major crisis ahead, but we still have skin in the game here. You can always continue. We have a great people – and a great history.”