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'Can't let Corbyn in': Brexit and NHS top concerns in Morecambe

The Guardian logo The Guardian 29/11/2019 Helen Pidd
a person sitting in front of a store: Ray Edmondson at his shop in Morecambe’s West End. © The Guardian Ray Edmondson at his shop in Morecambe’s West End.

Getting a GP appointment these days can often feel like a war of attrition, and the residents of Morecambe and Lunesdale feel they are fighting a harder battle than most. Ninety thousand people live in this Lancastrian coastal constituency and 53,839 of them are registered at the same mega-practice.

Sometimes, when they have been on hold for more than half an hour trying to get through to the Bay Medical Group’s single telephone number, it can feel as though they have 53,838 rivals in the queue ahead of them. They compete to be seen by the equivalent of 20 full-time doctors since four clinics merged in 2016 amid a hiring crisis. The practice is still three GPs down, despite releasing a slick recruitment video featuring drone footage of Morecambe Bay and the nearby Lake District, with doctors extolling the joys of living in such a beautiful part of the world.

Download the app, the practice website urges. But 16.4% of people in the area have not been online in the past three months – or ever. So they ring and they wait.

“It’s all right if you have a modern phone because you can just put it on speaker and get on with some jobs,” said Lynne Molloy, 63, a retired IT worker. “But when you finally get through, you seem to need to know the key words to be seen that day – once I’d had a reaction to some medication, which seemed to do it. Otherwise, you’ll be waiting a month.”

If the caller’s condition is deemed urgent, they will be squeezed in at one of Bay Medical’s five surgeries. That could be four miles away – a journey that costs £5 return on the bus for the 24% of local households with no car. It’s a significant outlay in an area where the food bank now feeds twice as many families as in 2015 and average weekly salaries are £500, £80 less than for the UK.

a person standing in front of a mirror posing for the camera: Lynne Molloy at home in Overton in Morecambe and Lunesdale constituency. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian © The Guardian Lynne Molloy at home in Overton in Morecambe and Lunesdale constituency. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

“It might not sound like a long journey but it wipes me out for the whole day,” says 23-year-old Tom Beswick, who lives in Poulton-le-Sands, just off Morecambe promenade. He needs regular appointments to manage his ME and chronic fatigue and survives on personal independence payments and employment support allowance.

He says the health service has gone noticeably downhill in the past three years: the specialised ME service has been cut and, despite being classed as needing “urgent” help to manage mental health problems, he waited 10 months for cognitive behavioural therapy.

Molloy, who has lived in the village of Overton for 10 years, has noticed the “creep” of privatisation in the health service. Recently she was referred for a knee replacement on the NHS and ended up in the private BMI hospital in nearby Lancaster. “Don’t get me wrong, it was very nice having my own private room, but it must cost the NHS a fortune to send people there,” she said.

a person standing in front of a large rock: Tom Beswick, who has ME, on the promenade in Morecambe. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian © The Guardian Tom Beswick, who has ME, on the promenade in Morecambe. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Both Beswick and Molloy will be voting Labour in this Conservative marginal, which has only ever elected a Labour MP during the Tony Blair era of 1997-2010. The future NHS is a concern for many in the constituency: it was cited as a major issue by 40% of the 120 local voters who contacted the Guardian.

On Tuesday this week, 56-year-old Lloyd Barratt (not his real name) tried to book a routine appointment to see a GP at Bay Medical, using the app. He has epilepsy, a brain aneurysm, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis and irritable bowel syndrome, and needs to see a GP every four to five weeks. There was nothing available before Christmas. “Not an unusual occurrence,” he said.

Barratt is a life-long Labour voter who was planning to vote for the Brexit party until Nigel Farage decided not to contest Tory-held seats. He said he could only support Labour if the party fulfilled its 2017 manifesto pledge of honouring the result of the EU referendum and remains undecided how to vote on 12 December.

Brexit looms large in Morecambe. The official referendum result in the area was 51% leave, exactly reflecting the national picture. But that included the much more affluent university town of Lancaster. According to Darren Clifford, a former Labour councillor who is standing as a Brexit-supporting independent in the general election, Morecambe itself was somewhere between 65% and 75% leave — an informed estimate he makes having acted as a sampler for the Labour party at the referendum count.

The local Conservative MP, David Morris, who has a majority over Labour of just 1,399, voted remain in the referendum. But he is keen to woo leavers such as Barratt, who insists he could “never” vote Tory and is now politically homeless.

Though he has yet to agree to any public hustings in the constituency and did not respond to an interview request, Morris turned up at a Leavers of Morecambe event in the Boardwalk pub on Morecambe prom earlier in November. Shortly before the Guardian was thrown out – “we do not want to be sold out by the British media again” – there was no agreement on whether to support Morris. “No one in this room knows yet where their vote is going to go,” said one woman who had been hoping to vote for the Brexit party.

Morris, a former hairdresser who played keyboards with Rick Astley, is not terribly popular in some quarters of the town. He is still mocked for misspelling Morecambe in early leaflets and people complain he claims credit for the achievements of others, including a link road to the M6 motorway and a northern outpost of the Eden Project, which should open in a few years on the seafront.

a man and a woman in glasses looking at the camera: Morecambe and Lunesdale general election candidates Lizzi Collinge for Labour (red rosette) and the Liberal Democrats’ Owen Lambert (beard) speaking at an election event. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian © The Guardian Morecambe and Lunesdale general election candidates Lizzi Collinge for Labour (red rosette) and the Liberal Democrats’ Owen Lambert (beard) speaking at an election event. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Some are unhappy that he dismissed child poverty claims from a local school as propaganda by Labour’s leftwing Momentum group, reporting them to social services instead of expressing sympathy for families so poor they could not afford the electricity to wash their children’s uniforms.

In his election leaflets, Morris trumpets the Tory pledge to provide 50 million more GP appointments each year, almost doubling Labour’s manifesto promise of 27 million. But both figures rely on future recruitment figures that are so optimistic they arguably stray into fantasy land.

“In the 2015 general election the Conservatives promised 5,000 more GPs and we now actually have a hundred less. We are training more GPs than ever before, which is a really good news story, but they are not necessarily working full-time in general practice because it’s not safe – because the workload is so high,” said Beccy Baird from the King’s Fund, a health thinktank.

Many of the Bay Medical Group’s patients, like Barratt, have a laundry list of medical complaints difficult to address in a 10-minute appointment: there is an over-representation locally of chronic conditions including depression, coronary heart disease, asthma, dementia and epilepsy.

Like most coastal towns, Morecambe is a magnet for both older people and what the council leader of Blackpool, Morecambe’s sister just down the coast, called “the dispossessed”. It is where people are housed after leaving prison or rehab, where damaged people seek a cheap sanctuary, hoping to recreate happy memories of childhood holidays on the coast.

Some pitch up at the far end of Morecambe promenade, seeking help at the West End Impact centre. For the past 17 years, this church-led community centre in the poorest part of the constituency has been helping people with homelessness and addiction.

When the Guardian visited this month, young volunteers from Acorn, an anti-poverty campaign group, were helping the centre’s clients register to vote. Those planning to cast a ballot were evenly split between Labour and Tory. Again Brexit, rather than healthcare or welfare, was the big deciding factor for some. Beech Benn-Mackay, 78, a regular visitor at the Impact centre’s free Thursday lunch, said he would be voting Conservative: “I want to get out of Europe. In 1975, when Ted Heath got us into the European Union, it was a trading relationship. As soon as they brought politics into it, it knackered it up.”

He was not a fan of the Labour party leader because “Jeremy Corbyn is a communist”. It is a view echoed around the constituency, from first-time voters at Morecambe high school (one sixth former, born in Poland, dismissed him as an “extremist”) to the West End fishmongers run by Ray Edmondson, a Conservative voter who has been shrimping in Morecambe Bay for 40 years. “You can’t let that Corbyn fella in,” said one customer, adding: “The Jew hater.”

a woman standing next to a body of water: Tracy Kohl, founder and manager of West End Impact centre which helps local residents in Morecambe. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian © The Guardian Tracy Kohl, founder and manager of West End Impact centre which helps local residents in Morecambe. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Tracy Kohl, the Impact centre’s founder and manager, was surprised to hear clients planned to vote Conservative. So many of them had suffered under nine years of Tory-led austerity, she said, particularly after Morecambe became one of the earliest adopters of universal credit. But even she, talking in a personal capacity, is yet to be convinced by Corbyn. “I went to see him speak at Lancaster University and he doesn’t come across as a strong leader. He does come across as a man of integrity and honesty, but not strength.”

Kohl is married to an Austrian and is a committed remainer who is bothered by Corbyn’s neutral Brexit position. “I do need him to make clear his stance. He’s so wishy-washy, isn’t he?” Questioning the Labour candidate, Lizzi Collinge, at an event in an Overton pub, Molloy asked her how she would “divorce” herself from Corbyn, given his widespread unpopularity locally.

Shelly, a 32-year-old teacher at a further education college, said she would be voting Labour “even though I don’t like a lot of Labour policies. I’m quite Tory in some ways. I come from a middle-class background. I went to a grammar school. Some of the policies Corbyn spouts are nonsense, like abolishing tuition fees when most people don’t pay them back anyway. But he seems to be the only one who tells the truth.”

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