Updated: Friday, 17th November 2017 @ 12:59pm

From DJ booth to ballot box: Withington Labour hopeful keen to hit right note in election battle

From DJ booth to ballot box: Withington Labour hopeful keen to hit right note in election battle

| By Ben Weich

The respective party leaders may have been pounding the streets and pressing the flesh up and down the country for the last couple of days in a desperate attempt to squeeze every last remaining vote they can.

But while Ed Miliband and David Cameron’s gaffe-plagued campaigns have stolen the headlines, this election could well be won at local level. 
Flying under the radar in MM’s own backyard are a number of remarkable stories, one of which revolves around a man called Jeff Smith.
Smith, a career DJ-cum-Labour councillor, is about to take a Manchester Withington seat that’s been held by Liberal Democrat John Leech for a decade, and rather comfortably at that.
An Ashcroft poll of 1,000 constituents conducted between June 11 and 21 last year had Labour at a whopping 34% lead over the Liberal Democrats but Smith, averse to hubris or self-aggrandisement, wouldn’t be drawn into predictions.
“It’ll be close, I think. I really don’t want to speculate,” he said with an uncomfortable smile as we sat down for a coffee.
Manchester Withington has been something of an embarrassment for the Labour party of late. The seat, largely populated by students, recent graduates, the white working class and a growing Asian community, has been ceded to the Lib Dems twice on the bounce. 
Even the up-and-coming Lucy Powell, Ed Miliband’s shadow cabinet office minister in the last parliament, couldn’t win there. She since went on to win a 2012 Manchester Central by-election by a staggering 9,936 votes on an 18.2% turnout.
It means a lot to Labour, too – Withington was identified as one of 106 target seats and as such, Smith was offered a campaign contribution of £1,000 by Tony Blair, which he accepted.
Instead of parachuting in an Oxbridge-educated HQ researcher or special advisor, Labour have gone for a true local lad in a bid to avoid eye-rolls and apathy.
It might well have been a pre-empted move to negate the everyman credentials of Leech who, like Smith, was raised and educated in the area, and went on to represent a south Manchester ward in the city council.
“I think it’s important to have people from a variety of backgrounds in Parliament,” Smith said very diplomatically.
“There’s a place for special advisors who then run for certain seats, but there’s also a place for people actually from their constituencies who know what matters to local people.
“I’ve worked away, but I’ve never actually lived away from here. I even went to Manchester University. I actually just love this area, I think it’s a great place to live.”
These are easy points to score, but at the same time you can tell Smith has a genuine affection for the area he’s always called home, and he understands the pain some have gone through in five years of coalition cuts.
The central pledge in Labour’s campaign is to address what they see as an unfair burden of the economic recovery on working people.
Smith himself gets most animated when he speaks of the way the Tory-led government has essentially punished society’s most vulnerable for a recession they had no part in bringing about.
“Under this government this area’s been really, really badly hit,” he says,
“And we’ve had to make massive cuts in our services because we’ve been faced with unfair funding reductions.”
For Smith it isn’t just a class issue either; the way the Tories have gone about cutting the deficit has also widened a rather sinister north-south divide.
“What the government’s done, effectively, is to move the money for local government from poorer northern cities to the south,” he said.
“If here in Manchester we’d have had our fair share of cuts we’d be £1.4million a week better off. That’s not being protective of Manchester, that’s just our fair share of cuts.”
His opponent is perhaps unfortunate to be a member of a party who’ve spent the last five years propping up a Tory government, but the constituents are aggrieved nonetheless. 
Two policies in particular that have rankled are the bedroom tax and the increase in tuition fees, which have certainly given Smith a lot of ammunition on the doorstep.
“I think in 2010 people thought they were voting for a left-of-centre alternative to Labour, and what they got was a Liberal Democrat party that’s propping up a Tory government,” he said.
“Take the bedroom tax. These are the kinds of decisions a Labour government would never have made but the coalition has. That’s why it’s important to have a Labour MP and a Labour government.
“The Lib Dems can point out individual differences where they might’ve voted against the government but at the end of the day they’ve supported the budgets, they’ve supported the attacks on Manchester’s funding.
In this race Leech and the Liberal Democrats are facing something of a perfect storm. Not only are they less popular in south Manchester than five years ago, but Labour are also on the rise.
Big reasons many Withington voters – especially students and the Asian community – turned their backs on the party were the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
But now most reckon Miliband’s done enough to cleanse the party of New Labour’s foreign policy, and disaffected voters are ready to ‘come home’.
“A lot of the younger Asian voters turned Lib Dem because of Iraq, but like they’ve come back to Labour,” said Smith.
“Ed has done a good job in moving us on from New Labour. A number of Labour MPs have said Iraq was a mistake and I argued against it at the time.
“The last Labour government did many, many great things but we have to put our hands up and say that was a mistake.”
So was taking Blair’s £1,000 an lapse of judgment? 
Back in March there were a few notable cases of candidates rejecting the donation, but Josh Woolas, chair of Manchester Labour Students believes they did so to score political points, rather than out of any moral objection.
“I thought that whole thing was ridiculous,” he said, “Sometimes you despair at people who come out and say the Labour party is holier than thou. 
“We want to win and we’ve got to keep out the Tories and the Lib Dems. If you can’t accept £1,000 off a donor to do that then I don’t know what you’re doing.
“There were definitely political motives behind that. I think if it looked good to their constituents to say no to New Labour – particularly up in Scotland – I think they did it because of that rather than because of Blair himself.”
Smith echoed the sentiment. Even though he was against the wars, he said, he didn’t think they were reason enough to turn down the money.
Although most signs point towards a victory for Smith, voter registration reforms brought in during the last parliament represent a considerable cause for concern.
Under the new laws, voters have to register individually, rather than in housing blocks as was the norm, meaning a great many students – who tend to live in large blocks of houses and halls – will fall off the electoral register.
For Smith – who stands to lose a chunk of his support base – this isn’t just an affront to democracy, it might also be a calculated move by the coalition to disenfranchise a Labour-voting demographic.
“These changes to voter registration have been a really bad for democracy. It’s been rushed in and really badly introduced,” he argued.
“We’ve lost something like 7,000 voters off the electoral register, which is just under 10% of the electorate.
“I think students won’t be voting Lib Dem this time so I think it probably hits us harder than it does them. Maybe that’s part of the reason they’ve done it.”
Woolas, too, has some pretty strong opinions on the subject, and Labour Students have devoted much of their time in the election run-up to simply getting students registered.
“I think it’s no coincidence in the parliament following that broken tuition fees promise there was a move to disenfranchise students. It’s a clever, cynical ploy,” he said.
“Nationally they reckon a million students will be knocked off the register. So there’ll be a shedload in Withington.
“You see the Tories coming out with policies that keep pensioners sweet in the run-up to the election because they know pensioners will come out and vote.
“And governments aren’t afraid to make savings on policies that will affect young people like EMA and tuition fees.”
Even without them, though, Smith will still probably win. It was essentially sewn up the day Nick Clegg got into bed with Cameron.
But until the ballots have been collected and counted, Smith won’t allow himself to entertain the thought of becoming Withington’s next MP for too long.
Instead, as we depart the café, he steers the conversation towards football. He’s a Man City season ticket holder, he tells me, and I ask if he was at the ground the day Sergio Aguero’s last-minute winner against Queen’s Park Rangers won the club its first league title in 44 years. He was.
“I’ll never forget it. It was incredible – I still get shivers thinking about it. It was one of the best moments of my life.”
Come the early hours of Friday morning it could well have competition.