Instinctively I am a Conservative... this time, I'm voting Labour

Stephen Scott, 62, says he doesn't think the Tories can't take credit for reducing inflation, and wants to see what Labour can do

As part of its election coverage, Yahoo News is speaking to voters around the country on the issues that will sway their vote. Read more from our election 'Your Voice' series here as we get closer to polling day on 4 July.

Your voice
Your voice
Stephen Scott says the country is ready for change. (Image supplied)
Stephen Scott says the country is ready for change. (Image supplied)

As chair of the Berwick Chamber of Trade and Commerce, Stephen Scott’s vote is one that Rishi Sunak must be hoping he can count on when the country finally goes to the polls. “Instinctively I am a Conservative,” he admits, “...but I don’t always vote that way.”

Now, the political and economic turmoil of the last few years is causing him to challenge those instincts. He didn’t vote Tory in 2019 - “because I was a Remainer” - and is unlikely to do so this year either. “I think the consensus is that the country is ready for change, and that change is likely to happen. Whether the Labour Party is really ready for change, I have my doubts," he says.

Scott, 62, runs a bed and breakfast with his wife in Berwick, a market town of 12,000 people just three miles from the Scottish border. He describes the job as a “pre-retirement” gig, after leaving a career in IT in central London almost a decade ago to move to the Northumberland coast. As a figurehead of local enterprise, he says the biggest issue for the business community is the lack of a coherent plan for the town centre, which has been hollowed out over the last two decades. The pandemic worsened the situation as the local economy also relies heavily on seasonal tourist trade. High business rates, and rules that protect listed buildings, mean many are sitting empty as investment vessels for absentee landlords and pension funds, while local retailers cannot find anywhere suitable or affordable to locate their business.

“Planning laws have encouraged and driven the development of out of town retail centres, but there is little or no strategy on what we do on how we evolve town centres from what their purpose was in the past to what they should be in the future,” says Scott. The problem has been compounded by the recent flight of large high street names from Berwick, including Home Bargains, and the closure of local retailer Fairburns which traded from the town centre for 80 years. “Independent businesses can’t go into those high streets because of the cost of the rent and the rates. We need incentives to developers to go in there and make those properties fit for purpose for retailing, hospitality and other things," he says.

Unsurprisingly, the economy is top of Scott’s priorities as the election nears. He voted Remain but accepted the Leave result when it came, and is disappointed with the government’s failure to “make the most of it” since. Lack of growth and economic stagnation are his biggest concerns for the country. “We have to remember the challenges of the pandemic and how much that cost. Whether we like it or not we’ve got to pay for that at some time,” he says. The Conservative government’s focus on reducing inflation was welcome, but Scott remains unconvinced that Sunak and chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s policies have had much effect with inflation pegged closely to global commodity prices and the cost of energy, which have started to reduce right across the world. “I don’t think they deserve any credit for it,” he says.

At this stage in the campaign, Scott is planning to vote Labour - but he still has concerns about Keir Starmer, who he describes as “populist”. “He has turned the Labour Party in the right direction, but he doesn’t inspire me as a leader. He’s not projecting any firm views and vision of his own,” he says, bemoaning the loss of statesman-like figures in British politics - Margaret Thatcher, Donald Dewar and, “to a certain extent”, Gordon Brown. “I think trust involves politicians being open and honest and it also involves politicians that are respected, whether people voted for them or not. Now we get career politicians who just tell you what you need to hear.”

Attitudes to immigration in Northumberland are generally positive, with business leaders left frustrated that Brexit has discouraged workers from across the EU coming to Berwick and other town in the area. There are a lot of job vacancies in sectors such as hospitality and healthcare.

Globally, Scott is concerned about status and influence. “I think we did take a lead in supporting Ukraine and, although I don’t particularly like the man, you need to give Boris Johnson some credit for that,” he says. But he remains concerned about both the Tory and Labour approach to the escalating conflict between Israel and Gaza, a symptom of our increasing global irrelevance. “I just don’t get why it’s acceptable that these Palestinians are being slaughtered. They are frightened to criticise Israel and the issue is not about Jewish people, it’s about the state of Israel. Yes they have a right to defend themselves but they don’t have the right to slaughter all these people and make them starve. But if the US can’t get them to change their minds, well Britain doesn’t have much chance either,” he says.

And there are other issues closer to home that seem too big to tackle, but are too big to ignore too. One is the state of the NHS: as we live longer, he believes the national model of comprehensive free healthcare will start to come undone. “It’s going to become too unwieldy and expensive, There needs to be some sort of cross party group looking at the strategy for the NHS so we’re not changing our minds every four or five years after an election. We need to sit back and ask ourselves what we need from the NHS. What things shouldn’t it be doing, and what additional things should it be doing that we’re not? But the way it’s working isn’t sustainable," he says.

Although Berwick sits within a historically Conservative-leaning constituency - it currently has a Tory majority of more than 14,000 - Scott’s eventual choice will make a real difference. Constituency boundaries are being redrawn before this year’s election, meaning former Labour areas are coming into the Berwick electorate and, combined with the national poll ratings highlighting the prime minister’s lack of popularity right across the country, there is a strong chance that even a large majority could be overturned.

Whatever the result, Scott will make his voice heard. “I would never consider not voting. I am a firm believer that it is our duty to do so. It will count one way or another," he says.

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