By Andrew MacAskill
DARTFORD, England (Reuters) – Silvia Sherwood believes it is time for a change of government in Britain at this year’s election, saying an economy that forces cash-strapped elderly women to seek warmth in shops needs to be fixed.
In an era of deep divisions in Britain, voters like Sherwood are becoming some of the best predictors of who will win the election, living in a town where results have aligned with the national vote in every national election since 1964 – the longest consecutive record.
If that track record is any reliable guide, then Prime Minister Rishi Sunak should be worried. Polling and interviews with a couple of dozen voters in the area suggests the governing Conservatives are likely to lose control of the seat.
On the streets of Dartford, a commuter town on the outskirts of London where pensioners wheeled their trolley-bags to the supermarket and mothers pushed their toddlers in prams up the main high street, the one thing that almost every voter agreed on was a sense that Britain’s best days were behind it.
“Life has just got harder for people in recent years,” said Sherwood, a 75-year-old retired cleaner, recounting a recent meeting with another elderly woman who had sought warmth in a grocery store. “It is the worst I can remember.”
Dartford offers clues to the national picture.
Opinion polls show Sunak’s Conservatives are trailing the opposition Labour Party by around 20 percentage points against a backdrop of sluggish economic growth, inflation shrinking disposable incomes, and a public sector under strain after years of spending cuts.
British households have suffered the biggest fall in living standards in modern history since the last election in 2019 following the coronavirus pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Britain’s exit from the European Union.
‘BEST OF A BAD BUNCH’
Once the centre of paper making in England, Dartford, like many medium-sized towns, has seen manufacturing decline in recent decades.
The disaffection in Dartford is ominous for a political party that must win seats like this to have any chance of staying in power – something Sunak must have known when he visited twice last summer.
Even among traditional Conservative voters in Dartford there is little enthusiasm for Sunak, who replaced Liz Truss as prime minister just over a year ago.
Joanne Godwin, a personal assistant and a Conservative voter, described him as the “best of a bad bunch” – too cautious and without a bold vision to turn the economy around.
Goodwin, who works full-time along with her husband and has two school-age children, said she had to cut down Christmas spending on food and presents because they have become so expensive.
“If we are struggling, I don’t know how people on one income are doing,” she said.
Kevin Matthews, a sales engineer for a lighting company, who voted for the Conservatives in the last election, said he was going to back the right-wing Reform Party this time because he thought it would be more likely to reduce immigration.
Matthews said a record influx of migrants had made it harder to see a doctor and for younger people to buy homes.
Michael Ostertag, 38, who works as a photographer and stylist and plans to vote for Labour, said the lack of affordable housing was the major issue for him. “A lot of people are feeling quite bitter and angry,” he said.
Dartford residents struggled to explain why the area has mirrored national results more consistently than anywhere else in Britain. The area has broadly similar demographics to the national average, but is slightly wealthier, has lower unemployment and a higher mix of ethnic minorities.
Like elsewhere, there is a widespread dislike of politicians. The one hope for the Conservatives was that some voters said they still have not decided which party they will back.
Ali Syed, the manager of a local pizza shop just off the high street, said he would back Labour if voting took place now, but would see what the Conservatives offered in the coming months.
If the Conservatives “improve their policies, then maybe I can think again”, he said.
(Editing by Elizabeth Piper and Tomasz Janowski)