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Voters in the north of England cared more about ending austerity than ensuring Brexit, Labour politicians in Leeds said on Friday morning after their party won a slew of seats across the region.
During the election campaign, Theresa May’s Conservatives focused on the traditionally Labour seats that had voted in favour of Brexit in last year’s EU referendum.
But they failed to pick up target seats such as Great Grimsby and Dewsbury, losing a string of Brexit-backing marginals, including Colne Valley and Weaver Vale.
In the north east, worries about the National Health Service and schools, coupled with a Conservative campaign that voters found increasingly unconvincing, contributed to a strong Labour result.
In Leeds North West, Labour candidate Alex Sobel ousted the Liberal Democrat incumbent, saying his victory had laid to rest a myth that people under the age of 25 are apathetic.
The seat has many students and saw the biggest rise in new voter registrations in the run-up to polling day, with 6,000 people, or 16 per cent of the area’s electorate, joining the rolls.
“A lot of people said young people would not turn out to vote,” he said in his acceptance speech. “They did not just turn out to vote. They were queueing at the polling stations. It puts to bed the myth that young people do not win elections.”
Judith Blake, the Labour leader of Leeds city council, said: “We have worked hard to get the message out that young people and women have suffered the most over the last seven years. If you want to change things you have to use your vote.”
Rachel Reeves, the Labour MP who was comfortably re-elected in Leeds West, said her party had won more former Ukip voters than expected.
“I think people have parked Brexit and think it’s done,” she said. “Ukip voters care about public services. They want more money for the NHS. Seven years of austerity and cuts are really biting.”
Ms Reeves and Hilary Benn, the Labour MP for Leeds Central — both longtime critics of Jeremy Corbyn — credited the Labour leader with putting forward a party manifesto that gave voters hope.
“A lot of young people have been enthused by Jeremy’s campaign,” said Mr Benn.
But he added: “We have not won. It is the third election in a row that we have not been able to form a government. The party will want to reflect on that.”
Early leanings from some traditional Labour voters to “vote Theresa May” were undermined both by the Conservatives’ negative and formal campaign, which exposed Mrs May to relentless scrutiny, and by Labour’s manifesto which struck a chord with many heartland Labour supporters.
“They said these were policies they wanted to support,” said Nick Brown, Labour’s chief whip, who was returned to his own Newcastle East constituency with a thumping 10,000 additional votes, giving him a 67.6 per cent share of votes cast. “People said it’s like the old Labour party, this is what I wanted to vote for.”
He said the difference between the Conservative and Labour campaigns on the ground played a part too. The Tories’ he said, consisted of “staged and false” set pieces while Labour events were ones that people genuinely wanted to attend.
In the end, Labour continues to have 26 of the north east’s 29 constituencies, and Conservatives the other three — but not all the same seats.
Stuart Andrew, a Conservative who held on in Pudsey, a constituency between Leeds city and Bradford city, by just 231 votes, promised to listen to voters.
“We did pick up on the doorstep that more Labour voters were voting Conservative for the first time than in 2015,” he said, adding that social media had played a large role in Labour’s success in mobilising younger voters.
“We are going to have to think about how we reach people,” Mr Andrew said. “You meet the parents on the doorstep but you need to talk to the young people inside as well.”
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