As the 2015 general election approaches, with less than six months to go, Elmet and Rothwell’s Parliamentary candidates from the major parties are preparing to face the electorate.
Covering extreme variations in wards, from Wetherby and Harewood to Kippax and Methley, the constituency has been in the hands of current Conservative MP Alec Shelbrooke since 2010.
Before Mr Shelbrooke won the seat with 42.6 per cent of the vote (a majority of 4,521 people - 8.1 per cent), however, the Labour Party held the majority since the last Conservative victory in 1992.
In May 2015, however, the election in Elmet and Rothwell, which had an electoral turnout of 55,789 in 2010 (71.8 per cent of the district’s population), there will be a big difference on the minds of every voter across the country.
There will be five Parliamentary candidates from major national parties, all of whom have the ability to steal the show and a significant number of votes from the two largest parties.
Though there were six candidates last time, since UKIP’s renewed success and a significant change to the Lib Dem’s polling figures, this ward could be one of the one’s to watch as the nation’s future is decided in six months’ time.
Although wards are divided politically there are common issues affecting all of them - transport, the economy, food poverty, jobs, education, and planning schemes submitted by housing developers.
This week, Mr Shelbrooke and Labour candidate Veronica King spoke to the Wetherby News about how they will confront these issues and set out their vision for the area.
See this week’s paper for interviews with candidates from the Liberal Democrats, UKIP, and the Green Party.
Current Elmet and Rothwell MP Alec Shelbrooke (Con) has held the seat since 2010.
Working in project management at the University of Leeds and as a kitchen and bathroom fitter after graduating from Brunel University in 1998, Mr Shelbrooke, who is 38, was also a Leeds councillor from 2004 to 2010.
In September 2012 Mr Shelbrooke was appointed as Parliamentary private secretary (PPS) to the Minister of State for Northern Ireland. Returning to the backbenches of the House of Commons in October 2013, he again took up a post as a PPS, this time in the Foreign and Commonwealth office.
Speaking to the Wetherby News this week, Mr Shelbrooke said he had unfinished business, both in government and in the constituency.
“There is no doubt we have done one half of the job to stabilise the economy and get it going again. The next half is to make sure we start growing people’s wages,” he said.
“The economic collapse we had has meant we had this long period getting it sorted out, but people aren’t necessarily feeling that in their pockets. Therefore we now have to go to the next stage.
“In terms of the local picture, again there is a lot of unfinished business. Having delivered on my promise of jobs, jobs, jobs, I am now on this major project to make this a dementia-friendly constituency.
“There is no doubt that the second most important issue that is going to affect this constituency, after the economy, is the rise of dementia. It is going to have an impact on the lives of everyone at some point and it will be as big as cancer was years ago.”
There are, however, other issues playing on Mr Shelbrooke’s mind.
Confronted with a Labour-dominated Leeds City Council (LCC), planning in areas where Conservative councillors are elected, including Wetherby and Harewood, is becoming a concern to the MP.
Recently he became involved with an application to build up to 325 houses on a field in Spofforth Hill after questions were raised over the decision-making process.
He said: “The Labour council has screwed us over in this area and they don’t care. For all the screaming from the Labour Party about digging up the greenbelt - these powers are passed to the local authority, so it isn’t the government’s fault.
“And for all of this planning moving forward my constituents say they need more affordable housing, starting with the brownfield first.
“It is death by a thousand cuts, because unless you are going to say here is a virgin site and plan into that schools, doctors, and community facilities, at the moment what we are left with is the worst of both worlds with houses dotted around villages and we are not going to build a single school or doctor’s surgery.
“You increase the population by 20,000 just in Wetherby and Harewood and expect the area to cope but it isn’t going to happen. They think they can get a political advantage by destroying people’s lives and I think that is immoral and evil, quite frankly.”
Where Mr Shelbrooke believes he has the advantage over his opponents is his commitment, over a number of years, to making the constituency his home.
Though he was born in Gravesend in Kent, he moved to West Yorkshire 16 years ago and, working in the area since that time, he knows the issues facing his constituents, he said.
“This is my home. I was in LCC for six years before the last election and I know the difficulties people have coming into Leeds - I have done it working at the university. I know the struggles because I did it for over a decade.
“You can only have that if it is your home, where you have made an adult life. I may be from the South East but I love where I live and I love my constituency.
“This is the only seat I wanted to represent and if I didn’t get it I wasn’t interested. I just find it insulting to the public to hear Mrs King say she is the local and I am the foreigner. I don’t think people take that casual racism very lightly.”
Mr Shelbrooke has played host to a series of high profile visitors in recent months.
A visit from Prime Minister David Cameron shortly before the Tour de France and, later, from Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne gave Mr Shelbrooke the chance to show off his constituency.
He is, however, convinced that this election, with five parties running for the Elmet and Rothwell seat, is good for democracy.
He said: “Anyone who thinks this is a two party system is sadly mistaken and I think that is good for democracy. The interesting thing about UKIP is the way they are hitting Labour’s working class votes, which goes back to the Labour Party treating seats with contempt.
“I worry about all opposition parties - their whole existence is to try and make me lose. I want to win, but nobody has a right to be elected and there is no such thing as a two horse race.
“You have to go out there and say this is who I am as a politician, these are the policies my party will put into place, and this will, in my opinion, have a positive impact.
“It is about doing things that have a long term impact and growing the economy and making this a dementia-friendly constituency. We all accept that we need more housing but it needs to be affordable and linked up to integrated transport. All of this is about saying to people this is my vision and this is why I think you are better off voting for me. I don’t go in for rudeness.”
The Labour candidate for the constituency is Veronica King.
After studying politics and communications studies at the University of Liverpool, Mrs King, who is 31, has worked in the National Union of Students, Daycare Trust, and currently works for the Alzheimer’s Society.
A member of the Labour Party since she was 17-years-old, Mrs King was born in Leeds and became inspired, with her parents, by the New Labour victory in 1997.
Her political and professional background, she told the Wetherby News, give her a clear picture of the effect of the current government’s policies on everyday people.
“I have worked in government but also charities and seeing the impact on those organisations and the damaging effects of this government made me want to run,” she said.
“There are lots of things I want to change. There is still so much inequality and poverty across Leeds and local people have been hit by the bedroom tax, and I can see the difference that policies the Labour Party has pledged would make that would really benefit local people.
“Elmet and Rothwell is such a diverse constituency and what Labour is pledging, like addressing the cost of living and the NHS, supporting small businesses and creating jobs, would benefit the entire constituency.”
Being a voice for her constituents on these issues, Mrs King said, is also important for getting people engaged in politics.
She said: “There is a lot of distrust and disillusionment with politics but if people meet someone who wants what they want it helps.
“People in Harewood and Wetherby think you’ll never get in as a Labour candidate, but then there are places like Kippax where Labour always does very well, so I’m trying to listen to people in the constituency as much as I can.
“We are not just concentrating where there is a strong Labour vote. It always strikes me when we get out in Wetherby that everybody cares about the NHS and as we get older more and more people become aware of how valuable it is.”
Though recognising the diversity of the Elmet and Rothwell constituency, Mrs King also knows there are several aspects that link the disparate wards.
Food poverty, frustrations with planning applications - these are areas affecting many, she said.
“People in Wetherby will be shocked to hear about some of the stories I hear - of pensioners who can’t afford to buy meat anymore, and the fact that we have got the foodbank.
“It is brilliant to see the community taking that forward, but it does shock people in Wetherby to find out that somewhere like that has a foodbank.
“More homes are needed - that is quite obvious when you look at the waiting lists - but it is about building the right homes in the right places.
“I have put objections in where plans are on the greenbelt because we should be building on brownfield first, and we need affordable homes for people in the area.
“If you look at the changes this government has made to planning laws they have handed a lot of power to developers and that is something that I will be pressing for them to make changes around that. It should be local residents who have more of a say.”
Selected from an all-female shortlist, Mrs King said she thinks people like a ‘relatively young, blonde woman’ campaigning for their area.
She said: “Labour are better at having women in the party. We have still got a lot less women MPs than men, but half the shadow cabinet is female and that is a really good thing.
“I see such a benefit from having a more representative parliament. If it looked a bit more like our society a lot of people would not be as turned off by politics.
“I feel really proud Labour has committed to making a difference on that. There were policy agendas taken forward by the last government, things they did to have more women in government.”
However, Mrs King also said her politics are not just focused in government - she wants to represent her constituents.
She said: “It is £148m worth of cuts LCC has had now, so I can understand why people feel politics is London-centric. There is definitely an appetite to look at devolution and that does benefit power houses in the north like Leeds.”