Meeting violence and anger on the election trail

Cllr Cathy Cordiner-Achenbach, Labour party candidate for Southtown and Cobholm ward in Great Yarmou

Cllr Cathy Cordiner-Achenbach, Labour party candidate for Southtown and Cobholm ward in Great Yarmouth, says she was punched while delivering leaflets on April 1 on Lichfield Road. Police are investigating the incident. Picture: Submitted. - Credit: Archant

Brexit is overshadowing the local elections, says GERALDINE SCOTT, as she talks to one candidate who has been attacked while canvassing.

Those campaigning for seats at local elections have to be made of tough stuff. These footsoldiers of grassroots politics are used to venturing out in all weather, rapping on doors, stuffing leaflets through letter boxes and desperately trying to get the uninterested exercised about flytipping, bin collections and business rates.

Ahead of next week's local elections, though, something is different and the mood is darker. Candidates are reporting a definite change in atmosphere, as the issue of Brexit comes to dominate political discussion on the doorstep.

Those standing for council seats are finding themselves the focus of the frustrations felt at Westminster's politicians, and the anger stoked by the febrile rhetoric surrounding the debate.

Cathy Cordiner-Achenbach, a Labour candidate in Great Yarmouth, has suffered the malevolent atmosphere at closer quarters than most. She was leafleting and knocking on doors in her ward of Southtown and Cobholm, a particularly deprived area where a quarter of children are classified as living in low-income families.

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When she called at one address a woman came to the door, punched her, called her a 'f**king traitor' and told her she should be hanged. 'I was just leafleting and somebody came out [of their house] and was obviously trying to express their views, and expressed them in a physical way,' she told TNE.

'It's sad people feel the need to respond in this way,' she added. 'I'm a local mum, I work in the area, so for someone to respond in that way made me shocked and sad.'

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The incident, which is being investigated by police, left Cordiner-Achenbach shaken, but not seriously injured. Although she did not hear the man specifically mention Brexit, she said the issue – and the anger around it – was overshadowing the elections. 'People are expressing their frustrations about the national picture,' she said.

Cordiner-Achenbach, 41, a serving councillor, has previously worked on local campaigns and is no stranger to robust verbal exchanges about local and national issues. But she said she had not seen anything on this level before. 'People are angry, not necessarily just about Brexit but because they don't feel like they aren't being heard.'

She continued: 'I understand I'm representing a political party so if people want to express their views then I get that. But I'm working to serve my local community. That's what it's about.'

Candidates are going to great lengths to attempt to distance themselves from Brexit and deflect criticism on the subject. Tony Adams, a Tory candidate elsewhere in Norfolk, has written in his election leaflet: 'The district council election is not about Brexit.'

He explained: 'I've mentioned Brexit in my postal vote letter as well, basically saying 'yes, however angry you are at how politicians from all parties have tried to scupper the result, the time to sort that out is at a general election'. We are as frustrated at what has happened as the public are.'

Other local candidates have reported being spat at and Emma Corlett, who is campaigning for Labour for a seat on Norfolk County Council, said members of a group of canvassers were accosted in a pub in nearby Norwich.

A woman in the group was told 'you should be ashamed of yourselves'. They were called 'traitors' and told 'all MPs should be shot'.

'It's damaging for the whole of democracy, and there does seem to be a gender element to it,' Corlett says. 'It seems it's women politicians being targeted.' She said most exchanges with voters involved reasoned conversations, but that a more extreme tone was creeping in to the public debate.

'Language matters. Rhetoric matters. We have seen with Jo Cox where it can end,' she said. 'We won't stop campaigning, but for the first time ever we are apprehensive.'

Great Yarmouth voted heavily for Brexit, with 71.5% voting to leave. Yet the problem is not confined to the town, or elsewhere in Norfolk.

Similar anecdotes are emerging from local candidates across the country. In Essex a Labour councillor described conditions as 'vitriolic... you knock at a door and the people on the other side scream at you.' Another, in south Yorkshire, said: 'It's horrendous – worse than when people spat at us over Iraq.'

It is not only the European elections, then, that are descending into a shrill dogfight over Brexit. The local elections too are being consumed by this all-encompassing issue. What it will mean for those other important issues – like fly-tipping and bin collections – is anyone's guess.

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