RObin Blair has been behind his fruit and vegetable stand since the age of three months, in a basket under the box where his mother worked. Now 77, his is one of the last remaining businesses in historic Darlington Market, the ‘Red Wall’ town won by the Tories in 2019, where Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak will hold their North East roundups Tuesday evening.
Questions about the cost of living are expected to dominate the rest of the campaign. In Darlington, energy bills are expected to be nearly 15% of average after-tax household income.
Blair says he has been through tough times in the past, but admitted he fears the catastrophic rise in prices this winter. “I think the government has to put its hands in its pocket – when things are going well, they don’t hesitate to raise taxes,” he says. “Our biggest concern is fuel; we are also planters, old-fashioned market gardeners.
He also fears for the future of the city and the empty shops on the main street. Hip bars and cafes have opened in the old townhouses of Darlington’s attractive streets, but there are gaping holes in the large retail spaces that only the big brands can afford.
For business owners and high street shoppers, there’s a nod that the government can’t give more help with the bills and a sense of inevitability that it will have to come from anyway. Earlier today, Truss doubled down on its refusal to offer meaningful help to people with rising energy bills this winter.
David Jackson, the market’s newest butcher, cautiously praises the town’s new Conservative MP, Peter Gibson. But he says his business faces “astronomical” costs. “People will not be able to pay their bills. It’s simple,” he says. He largely hopes Sunak will win: “He was chancellor, he should know something.”
Outside on the main shopping thoroughfare, David Eeles says his health depends on machines needing power, having already seen his bills soar up to £200 a month.
His daughter Sue McQuillen, who recently returned from a trip to Turkey, is scathing about the help offered by the government. “We have kept none of our national assets, neither the energy companies, nor the water, nor the automobile industry. All the billions in profits these companies make don’t even stay here.
Darlington has totemic status for conservatives. In 2017, pollster John Curtice named it the seat that would land Theresa May’s new and bigger majority.
Instead, Labor took the seat and May lost her majority. A member of the shadow cabinet remarked at the time that the greatest achievement of the 2017 campaign was not winning Canterbury but holding Darlington, especially after the Conservatives’ victory as mayor of Tees Valley.
In 2019, the constituency instead announced the end of the job, eliminating shadow minister Jenny Chapman. But a number of people in the city say they believe the city will turn red again – without explicitly saying they will change their vote.
Emma Kane, a beautician, and her husband, Adam, who works in manufacturing, say they consider their household incomes comfortable and are even worried about future price hikes.
Both say they are not sure voting for Labor would make a huge difference. “Unions spend a lot of time saying what’s wrong, rather than finding solutions,” she says.
The Tories are determined to fill the seat – and the seat has received particular attention from Sunak as Chancellor, whose Richmond constituency makes him a close neighbour. Last year, Darlington was the location chosen for “Treasury North” – a new business campus for the department.
The move is a source of civic pride in the city, but some doubt locals will benefit from the new jobs – and the announcement has already had an effect on property prices.
Elizabeth Hackwell says she is deeply skeptical of ‘local boy’ Sunak, calling him ‘a chancellor who wouldn’t pay taxes and pay ours’. She says Darlington will “go back to work”, but says people were angry the Brexit vote was ignored. “Boris did it and we can move on now.”
For Labor it is a tough fight back, having also lost the council in 2019, and there is internal gloom over the prospect of regaining control next year. Chris McEwan, a longtime adviser, says the party was undone by “Brexit, Corbyn and appeasement” and that the third of them is still the hardest to tackle.
He says Labor has “a way to go” in communicating its offer to people. “We need to focus more on energy companies – these are abnormal profits. The government should intervene and I do not believe that it is prepared to do so. It’s for the good of the economy. »
McEwan says the impact of the cost of living crisis is now so severe in parts of the city that Covid-era self-help groups involving churches and local charities have been repurposed as aid emergency for those who are plunged into poverty by increasing the costs.
He says the city still has a strong sense of community and Labor can show it is on its side. “There is a major crisis ahead, but we still have skin in the game here. You can still move forward. We have a big population – and a big history.