This English Naval City Is a Bellwether Seat. How Do Voters Feel?


Voters streamed into a polling station in Portsmouth, a city nestled along England’s southern coast that is known for its naval base and historic dockyard, on Thursday morning as ballot workers greeted them warmly.

Older couples walked hand in hand into the local church, which had been temporarily fitted out with ballot boxes, alongside parents with children in strollers, and young adults rushing in on the way to work.

One by one, they weighed in on the future of the nation in a vote that polls suggested could end 14 years of Conservative-led government.

“I just want to see change,” said Sam Argha, 36, who was outside the polling station on Thursday morning. “I just really want to see us do something differently.”

It also serves as a microcosm of the broader national challenge facing the governing party: a longstanding Conservative seat held by a popular candidate that is now at risk of being lost, and a largely disillusioned electorate that expressed frustrations with their quality of life and what many see as a lack of leadership.

Portsmouth North has long been held by Penny Mordaunt, a Conservative lawmaker whose prominent role at the coronation of King Charles III last year, when she wielded a heavy, jewel encrusted ceremonial sword, drew international attention to her steadiness and poise.

She was first elected to the seat in 2010, when the Conservatives went into a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, and her political future now appears uncertain. Ms. Mordaunt, who is seen as a possible contender for her party’s leadership, is widely liked in Portsmouth, and many of her supporters said they had no intention of heading in a new direction.

But polls have suggested that Labour voters in the constituency could overtake Conservative support in Thursday’s vote.

The centrist Liberal Democrats — considered the third most popular party here — and the hard-right Reform U.K. party could also siphon off votes from the Conservatives.

“My hopes are for a much more compassionate government from Friday,” said Grahame Milner, 62, who was walking in the city center with his husband of three decades on Wednesday afternoon.

Many of the shops surrounding the couple were vacant or boarded up. Graffiti marked the sides of shuttered department stores. There is little to attract people to the area, other than the bookmakers, charity shops and small stores selling vapes, Mr. Milner said.

He first came here to serve in the Navy — the city is home to the country’s biggest naval base — and was deployed during the 1980s Falklands War as a chef aboard a military vessel. He was pushed out of the military because of his sexual orientation, he said, and later became deeply involved in union work after returning to civilian life. He had already cast his ballot by postal vote last week.

“The austerity program has been absolutely crippling to working-class people,” Mr. Milner said, pointing to the number of working people relying on food banks just to get by. “This is just not the Britain that I served in the military for.”

His husband, Carl Milner, 64, acknowledged that there will be a difficult task ahead for whichever party comes to power. But he said of the Conservative government plan to reduce inequality in communities across Britain, “We’ve talked about ‘leveling up’ for so long, but it’s only gotten worse.”

Concerns about the hollowing-out of the National Health Service, a cost-of-living crisis that has left many struggling, debates about immigration, and the fallout from Britain’s withdrawal from Europe were front of mind for many locals.

They described a deepening decline in their own fortunes and that of their home city.

Others said they had no plans to vote at all, disillusioned by parties and politicians from across the spectrum that they see as out of touch.



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