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Gladiatorial battle looms in UK’s tightest election seat

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Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May (C) delivers a speech to Conservative Party members as they launch their election campaign in Walmsley Parish Hall in Bolton in north-western Greater Manchester on April 19, 2017. PHOTO: ANDREW YATES / POOL / AFP

With Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservatives dominating Britain’s opinion polls, opposition MPs are bracing for a fierce election fight — none more so than in Chester, where Labour’s majority is just 93.

The Roman fortress town in north-west England has long been a political bellwether, going Labour with the rest of Britain in 1997 and Conservative in 2010 — and it is now a key battleground for the June 8 snap election.

As elsewhere in the country, the outcome will depend in part on how the debate is framed — whether on local issues, party leadership, the government’s record, or Britain’s looming exit from the European Union.

In national opinion polls, Labour is running up to 24 points behind May’s Conservatives — but Chester MP Chris Matheson, who won the seat with the slimmest of margins in 2015, is bullish.

“We had a fight on our hands last time and we won, and we’ve got a fight on our hands this time — and we’re going to win as well,” he told AFP.

His local party says it is ready for the campaign — while the Conservatives have yet to even choose a parliamentary candidate.

Local Tories are playing down expectations, admitting they were “bruised” by their defeat two years ago, which bucked the national trend — and also saw them lose control of the local council.

“It’s not a shoo-in. We’ve got nothing to lose now and we really hope to win,” said city councillor Pamela Hall.

But analysts say that Chester, an increasingly affluent pocket of Labour’s north-west heartland, is deeply vulnerable.

“This must be at the top of Theresa May’s hitlist of constituencies to win from Labour to boost her majority,” said Simon Lee, senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull.

– ‘Sort out Brexit’ –

May called the vote this week, accusing opposition parties of seeking to disrupt Brexit and saying that only she provides the “strong and stable leadership” needed as Britain heads into negotiations with the EU.

“I want Theresa May in charge to sort out Brexit,” said Gina Mayne-Flower, a 60-year-old in Chester who used to run her own business.

“She knows what she’s doing,” she told AFP, adding of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn: “I don’t think he is up to the job.”

Labour has struggled to define a clear message on Brexit, but says the election is about change and has promised to stand up to the “cosy elites” and improve public services.

Accusations of underfunding in the state-run National Health Service (NHS) and schools resonate with Chester voters — as do the government’s cuts to welfare.

May has promised to stand up for “ordinary working families”, but this provokes a snort of derision from many people here.

“The Conservative party is full of shit. They’re cutting all my benefits,” said Carla Futcher, a 26-year-old carer with four children.

– ‘The Corbyn issue’ –

Futcher lives in Blacon, an area of Chester where Labour won a council by-election with an increased majority on Thursday.

But she is no fan of Corbyn — “no comment” — and other traditional Labour voters are also less than enthusiastic about their party.

“On the economy, that’s where Labour falls down,” said Thomas Mawdsley, a 24-year-old software engineer.

Many Labour MPs view Corbyn as an electoral liability, rejecting his left-wing views as impractical, and are already seeking to distance themselves from him in the campaign.

Matheson joined a mass revolt against Corbyn last year — but now insists he wants him to become prime minister, describing him as “decent and honest”.

However, he would not say whether the party leader would be on his campaign literature.

“The Corbyn issue is sensitive. Some marginal MPs will try to play a local campaign,” said Patrick Diamond, a politics lecturer at Queen Mary University of London.

But he warned they cannot control the Conservative party machine, which two years ago proved ruthlessly effective in targeting voters through mailshots.

“On the ground things might look evenly matched, but the sheer financial advantage of the Conservatives means it isn’t.”



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