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4 September 2023

Who can beat the Tories in Mid Bedfordshire?

Labour and the Lib Dems are fighting it out for who is best-placed to challenge for Nadine Dorries’s very Conservative seat.

By Ben Walker

Who can beat the Conservatives in Mid Bedfordshire? The last time it voted anything other than Conservative was 1929. Activists from Labour and the Lib Dems have been sparring on social media about who is best-placed to replace Nadine Dorries as the member of parliament. Labour’s mess-up in Uxbridge, say some Lib Dems, means it has no right to contest anything with confidence. Labour, meanwhile, is using national polling as the justification for giving this seat the party’s best shot. 

We have one poll, by Opinium, now two months out of date. It shows Labour ahead on 28 per cent to 24 per cent for the Conservatives. But the winning share is so low you couldn’t really make a prediction with confidence. The last time a party won a parliamentary by-election with a vote as low as that was… never, actually.

So there’s everything to play for. Labour organisers I speak to say they’re not backing down, ditto Lib Dem ones. But neither are speaking with confidence that they can win the seat decisively, in part because of the other getting in their way, and in part because both their appeal is rather limited.

In July, polling data of the seat, showing campaign reach, was shared with me. It asked respondents whether they had received party literature (such as pamphlets, flyers) from all the parties. A majority said they had received literature from both the Lib Dems and Labour. A third, meanwhile, said the same for the Conservatives.

I’d be willing to bet these are inflated numbers. Like voter recall, respondents often enjoy stating with pinpoint accuracy what junk mail they remember receiving through their letterbox. But for the Lib Dems and Labour to be up there on perceived reach (while the Conservatives flounder), only illustrates what we already know: neither side is giving up.

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But that was then. And we’re likely still a month, or two, from election day, creating one of the longest by-election waits. Until that one poll putting Labour ahead, I was writing up the seat as one the Lib Dems should push hard for. Over the years, the area saw little activity from either side. In seats such as these, the Lib Dems have form for breaking through with disaffected Conservatives and cleaning up.

[See also: Nadine Dorries’ “Plot” to hijack the Tory party conference]

That is often, however, predicated on Labour’s activity in the seat being next to non-existent. This time it’s different. 

And Mid Bedfordshire is, in one respect, like Selby and Ainsty, a seat that Labour won last month. The most densely populated towns in Mid Bedfordshire are Ampthill and Flitwick, at around 10,000 residents each. The largest town in Selby is Selby, at 20,000. Both Mid Bedfordshire and Selby are disproportionately rural seats, though Selby proper does have form for voting in Labour councillors. If one countryside constituency can demonstrate a capacity to vote Labour in July, why not another?

It’s also worth noting that according to Redfield & Wilton’s regular tracker of so-called Blue Wall constituencies, there is a sizeable surge in support for Labour, to the detriment of both the Tories and Lib Dems. In 2019, the Lib Dems were the confident second choice in seats such as these. Now polling shows Labour overtaking them, cleanly. This is unreflected in local election results. In May it was the Lib Dems who advanced in Surrey, in Oxfordshire and in Berkshire – not Labour.

And it isn’t a stretch to suggest the poll in Mid Beds, like Redfield’s Blue Wall tracker, was more a poll of how the constituency's voters would vote nationally, as opposed to locally. But we don’t know that. We can’t say that with great confidence. And the fact voters in the seat record receiving as many Labour visits as they do from the Lib Dems suggests it’s going to get messy. Whoever wins won’t win big, that’s for sure.

Who will win Mid Bedfordshire? This forecaster is giving you a grudging shrug.

[See also: Nadine Dorries is the Tory Miss Havisham]

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