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20 June 2022

Wakefield by-election: Is Boris Johnson turning Red Wall voters back to Labour?

Recapturing the Tory-held seat has become a symbolic test of Keir Starmer’s chance of ever forming a Labour government.

By Anoosh Chakelian

The sandy stone walls and narrow streets of Horbury, a village-like town on the outskirts of Wakefield, shimmer in the June heatwave. Simon Fishwick, 49, a local Tory councillor who owns the Green Berry grocers, is busying himself among his strawberries, peaches and – as an excitable blackboard boasts – “FANTASTIC FENNEL!”

Pulling a shirt on over his vest, and flipping a crate upside down for us to perch on, he appears concerned about the Wakefield constituency’s future. A petite ex-marine who speaks as passionately about veg as he does policy, he warns that this enclave of West Yorkshire is vulnerable as the economy falters.

Wakefield, a small city in the shadow of Leeds, switched from Labour to the Tories for the first time since 1931 in the 2019 election, with a majority of 3,358. The by-election was triggered because its new Tory MP, Imran Ahmad Khan, was found guilty of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old.

Like many residents here, Fishwick was once a Labour supporter – his father was a miner – but Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership put him off the party. He was elected to the council in 2019, the year the so-called Red Wall of increasingly marginal Labour seats in the north and Midlands crumbled. In the 66 per cent Leave-voting constituency, voters turned to Boris Johnson, who not only promised to deliver Brexit but to rebalance the economy in favour of the north of England.

“As a Wakefield councillor, I think we need a vision, we need a clear plan of action that we can work towards as a city,” Fishwick says, squinting into the sun and sipping tea as his dog, Sweep, snuffles around us.

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“Whoever is successful in the by-election, we’ve got to have a people’s person, and a clear, definitive message, an objective with some longevity: a five or ten or 20-year plan in putting the city first and foremost. The M1 runs from south to north as well as north to south, and I think that’s a little bit forgotten about.”

Wasn’t it Johnson who promised to do something similar three years ago, with his levelling-up initiative? “Now you’re taking me on a road I don’t want to go down!” he laughs. “As a business owner, I’ll be looking for someone who can lead us from the front. I want to see that leadership coming from the top.” From the MP, or the party leader? He smiles. “I’m talking about the MP.”

[See also: Tiverton and Honiton by-election: will Devon’s Conservative voters abandon old loyalties?]

In December 2021, along with some fellow councillors, Fishwick expressed dismay at partygate and urged Johnson to “take responsibility”, but stopped short of calling for his resignation – and won’t be drawn on the Prime Minister’s future now.

Yet plenty of voters in Horbury, the more Tory-facing suburban part of the seat, are turning away from the Conservatives.

Labour is working hard in such places, launching its campaign at a cricket club in Ossett, a commuter-beltish, moderately prosperous market town outside of Wakefield. Door-knocking on a balmy evening in South Ossett uncovers new Labour voters, and disaffected Tories.

“I used to be for the Conservatives,” says one woman whose smart front door is flanked by bright pink geraniums. “They’re losing the plot with this Rwanda stuff, they’re losing their way now.” (She is unenthused by Keir Starmer, however, calling him “all talk”.)

David Herdson, the former chair of the Wakefield District Conservative Association – who left the party over Johnson’s leadership in 2019 – is trying to pick off Tory voters in these areas for the Yorkshire Party (which campaigns for a regional parliament).

“There’s certainly disillusionment in politics of which [partygate] must be a major factor,” he tells me, noting he’s seeing more support for Labour than at the start of the campaign. “Johnson’s not going to change, he’s been like this since he was a teenager – always made his own rules, always given himself a pass. You can’t have that in a prime minister.”

When I follow the Conservative campaign door-knocking around a smart close of red-brick, double-fronted houses to the north of Horbury centre, people politely say that they are undecided. One middle-aged woman, who is “generally Conservative”, denies them her vote.

“I’m fed up with everything,” she tells Mark Eastwood, the Conservative MP for neighbouring Dewsbury who is on his 16th visit to help out with campaigning. “It’s not good, with the lockdown scenario. It was so difficult for everybody and then to find out they were doing what they wanted when they wanted!”

[See also: Stop using children as leverage against strikes]

Eastwood argues that his party kept the economy ticking over during the pandemic, and delivered the vaccines – and mentions the Durham police investigation into Keir Starmer’s beer and curry on the campaign trail last April. (The latter doesn’t come up when I speak to people; voters instead express uncertainty about what Starmer stands for, or that – as Irene Cawfield, a Labour-voting 73-year-old retired shop assistant puts it – he needs “more oomph”.)

How is the Prime Minister regarded by residents on the doorstep? After all, he is the basis of the top attack line on Labour leafletters’ cribsheets here.

“Strangely enough, lots of people like him!” grins Nadeem Ahmed, the Tory candidate, a garrulous local teacher who gives enjoyably scattergun interviews. “I’m not saying everything’s fine and dandy and rosy, what I’m trying to say is what we’re hearing in the national media and the polls is not what I’m getting on the doorstep.”

The day after we speak, he cites the case of Harold Shipman to explain why people should still trust Conservatives as they do GPs. He tells me he opposes Tory rebels’ call for a confidence vote in Johnson, because he should be allowed to deliver his mandate. But also, somehow, links it to the Iraq invasion.

“I do not see Labour councillors or Labour MPs calling out Tony Blair. I hold him responsible for the deaths in Iraq, the innocent lives, nobody’s talking about that,” he adds. “What I’m trying to say is there are certain things that are immoral that have happened in the past that were called out years later, and people apologising for them now, it doesn’t make sense… I don’t think anyone called one [a confidence vote] on Blair, did they? There should’ve been!”

Simon Lightwood, the Labour candidate who constituency polling – and internal Labour Party data – suggest is on track to win the seat back, is less expressive. He declines to speak to me when I approach him outside Labour’s impressive red-brick campaign HQ, covered in posters and Union Jack bunting, with Andy Burnham looking purposeful on the steps outside.

“It feels like the momentum is with us but we’re certainly not complacent; we’re in single digits territory,” says Lou Haigh, Labour’s political lead for the Wakefield by-election campaign and the shadow transport secretary. She’s been overseeing things here since Easter.

“We’ve only made one by-election gain in 25 years,” she says. “It will actually be quite a historic moment for the Labour Party if we can take Wakefield back. I think it would be a massive step forward.”

Rising bills, and particularly the cost of fuel amid bus strikes in the area, are a key concern. Wakefield is “quite poor compared with other cities”, according to Anand Menon, a politics professor at King’s College London who grew up here. “There is a high proportion of working people on Universal Credit, and levels of education are relatively low.”

More than a third of families with children in Wakefield are living in poverty, according to Mary Creagh, its former Labour MP who lost the seat in 2019. “Lots of people on the estates work in distribution, caring professions, retail, so they’ll have been through a very difficult time. And an awful lot of people work in public services – health professions, police, firefighters, prison service – all of those people will have seen the cost of living soar, and will be feeling the strain.”

[See also: How Britain’s failure to reckon with global forces led to a cost-of-living crisis]

Voters I speak to generally believe the government should help more with the impact of spiralling prices. One shopkeeper, who prefers not to be named, scoffs at the recent support announced by Rishi Sunak (“it’s not worth the ink in your pen!”). He switched from Labour to the Tories in 2019, but is now concerned about losing his business. “They’re not in touch with people on the ground.”

“All MPs, who get a big pay rise and are sat there in parliament, with what’s happening with everyone else, it’s really not fair. People are going into poverty now because of electric and gas and the food going up – it’s a struggle,” says Rachel Jagger, 43, sitting in the sun in the city centre across from the bakery where she used to work before she fell ill. “We need someone to help us.”

She “feels sorry” for Johnson, however, because of all the crises he’s had to steer the country through, and is willing to give the Tories “another chance”.

Ahmed assures voters that the Chancellor is taking “nothing off the table” to help make their lives easier, but emphasises global inflationary pressures. “My dad’s having this conversation with his relatives in Pakistan about petrol and oil prices, oil’s gone up and sugar’s gone up, it’s the same conversation. They’re having much tougher times than we are.”

To the east of the city are the more deprived areas, with a higher concentration of British Asian residents. Akef Akbar, a solicitor and former Conservative councillor who quit the party earlier this year after calling Johnson an “idiot” and for him to resign, is targeting these places as an independent candidate. A local boy, who has worked in takeaways, taxi offices, as a cleaner and all manner of other jobs across the city, his candidacy initially spooked the Labour campaign, who feared the George Galloway effect (appealing from a populist position to Muslim voters).

“I was raised as a Labour voter with strong socialist morals,” Akbar tells me. “As I got older, I woke up to this theme of the Labour Party being ‘the new Tories’. But eventually, after nine months of serving as a Conservative councillor, I came to the realisation that this is not me, this is not what I represent – it could be that I was naive to join in the first place, which I’m willing to put my hands up to.”

Expressions of betrayal and disappointment like this are rife across the city and its surrounding towns. Even Ahmed, the Tory candidate, is worried about his party not appearing to level up. “I am concerned,” he says, pointing out that Wakefield was granted £25m from the government’s Towns Fund. “I think our messaging has probably missed out on that opportunity [to promote that investment]. We’ve had an absent MP… There’s a mistrust in politics and there’s so much mud-slinging going on – ‘you’ve had a party, you’ve had a party’ – now people are forgetting that £25m Towns Fund [money].”

A tight Tory marginal, Wakefield changing hands to Labour shouldn’t really mean much at this stage in the electoral cycle. Yet as campaigners deliver the last of their leaflets, this by-election has become a symbolic test  – of Keir Starmer’s chance of ever forming a Labour government, and of Boris Johnson’s magic touch in the Red Wall.

[See also: Boris Johnson’s food strategy fails to address food poverty and the cost-of-living crisis]

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