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  1. The Weekend Report
14 October 2023

“Nadine Dorries is as much use as a chocolate fireplace”: on the Mid Bedfordshire doorstep

The seat has been Conservative for nearly a century – now, Labour and the Lib Dems are locked in a battle for tactical voters.

By Rachel Cunliffe

It’s a sunny morning in the Bedfordshire town of Ampthill, and Emma Holland-Lindsay is handing out leaflets at the weekly market in the Waitrose car park. The stalls are an eclectic mix – artisan bread and cheese sold alongside bargain bric-a-brac, and a charity stand for the local hospice – reflecting the diversity of a constituency that will go to the polls on Thursday (19 October) in the latest test for opposition parties seeking to overturn large Conservative majorities.

Some of the stallholders recognise Holland-Lindsay and her team. The Liberal Democrats have been canvassing hard here since Nadine Dorries first announced her intention to resign as Mid Bedfordshire’s MP on 9 June. By the time Dorries actually stood down, more than ten weeks later, a by-election campaign was already fiercely under way. Prior to that, many people here say they’ve never been approached by candidates seeking election. Mid Bedfordshire has been a Conservative seat since 1931. Dorries, who was first elected in 2005, had a majority of 24,664 in the 2019 election. It was considered among the safest Tory seats – not worth fighting over.

“People here feel taken for granted,” Holland-Lindsay tells me. “They want an MP who is visible.”

The indignation at being ignored for so long is clear on the doorstep. There is palpable anger at Dorries: “She’s been about as much use as a chocolate fireplace,” says one enraged woman. The anger doesn’t just concern the surreal period over the summer when Dorries appeared to have quit as an MP without formally standing down to allow a by-election to take place. Nor is it to do with her fanatical support of Boris Johnson, even after he was ousted over partygate and other scandals, or the trouble she has tried to cause Rishi Sunak with her explosive resignation letter. Rather, it is mostly about her apparent disregard as a local MP for adequately representing her constituents.

“Never seen her,” is one voter’s blunt assessment. “She wasn’t local. She didn’t live here, didn’t hold surgeries, didn’t understand the needs of the community,” says another. There are stories of letters and emails to her office over the years being ignored – or responded to with dismissive, boilerplate replies. Later, when I meet the Labour candidate, Alistair Strathern, in the nearby town of Shefford, he points out the last known location for Dorries’ constituency surgery. It closed some time ago and is now a dance studio.

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“This is a chance to stick two fingers up,” says a man in the picturesque village of Flitton, a few miles away. “I can’t wait.”

It is this visceral frustration, on top of the Conservatives’ slide in the polls nationwide, that has led both Labour and the Lib Dems to believe they can overturn such a large majority. If either succeed, it will be the biggest Tory by-election loss in history. But it is an uphill struggle, in more ways than one.

Holland-Lindsay, like all the main candidates, is keen to emphasise how local she is. “I’m at least fifth-generation Bedfordshire,” she laughs. “That’s as far back as my grandmother knows, but it may go further.” She moved back to the area after university because she wanted to raise her children here, and was elected as a Lib Dem councillor for Leighton Linslade South, in the south-west of the constituency, in May.

“It’s a very rural constituency, and quite similar to the places where we’ve done well in the past,” she says, citing the Liberal Democrats’ June 2021 victory in Chesham and Amersham in particular, as well as more recent wins in North Shropshire (December 2021) and Somerton and Frome (July 2023).

The rural nature of Mid Bedfordshire – it is home to 48 villages, some with a population of just a few hundred people – is one reason the Lib Dems feel they are the natural challenger party here, where their appreciation of the countryside that can win over small-c conservatives in a way Labour can’t. But the villages alone don’t communicate the diversity of a constituency that, as one local put it, doesn’t have a clear “centre of gravity”.

There are places like Ampthill, a picture-perfect market town in the English shires. A majestic 15th-century church is the centrepiece of a bustling high street that boasts an antiques emporium, an upmarket wine shop and multiple estate agents showcasing properties with London-level price tags. There’s Shefford, on the eastern edge towards the A1, where the Labour candidate lives, which is more mixed. Parts of Mid Bedfordshire fall into the orbits of various commuter belts. It takes just an hour to drive there from north London, up the M1 through miles of beautiful countryside; there are direct rail links into the capital from Flitwick and Bedford. Luton is on the southern edge of the constituency, while Milton Keynes is to the west, and Cambridge to the north-east. For young professionals priced out of London or Cambridge, or just seeking a greener place to live, this former Blue Wall stronghold has become an attractive alternative. Wixams, an entirely new town that has been under construction since 2007, is now home to more than 5,000 people.

[See also: Would Boris Johnson have won in Oxbridge?]

This part of the country has had a reputation for affluence, but today the cost-of-living crisis is being felt acutely: 39 per cent of homes here are owned with a mortgage, the third-highest level in England and Wales. This makes rising interest rates particularly painful. The other issue that comes up again and again is healthcare provision. There is just one GP per 2,799 patients in the Bedfordshire, Luton and Milton Keynes NHS area, the fifth-highest ratio of patients to doctors in England. People talk of spending weeks calling their local surgery every morning without getting an appointment, eventually perhaps forced to go private.

The influx of new residents to recently built developments has put additional strain on the system: Wixams was promised a GP surgery as part of its plan, but it hasn’t materialised, meaning residents must drive miles to see a doctor. The planned rail link and other facilities have also yet to appear, and school places are under severe pressure. Fingers have been pointed at the council, the developers and the area’s NHS integrated care board. These are the sorts of issues a dedicated local MP could help untangle. A skilled local politician is needed to reconcile the problem of unaffordable housing with the pressure new building puts on existing infrastructure and public services.

The opposition vote here is starkly divided. This is one of a few seats in the country in which the Lib Dems are in direct conflict not just with the Conservatives, but with Labour.

The campaign literature reflects the oddities of this three-way race, and the pitch to constituents determined to vote tactically to get the Tories out.

“Labour’s London candidate just cannot win here,” reads one of the leaflets Emma Holland-Lindsay hands out. The survey she distributes at the market states: “This by-election is set to be close between Lib Dem Emma and the Conservative. Which would you prefer?”

The Labour leaflets, in contrast, lead with a poll showing Labour tied with or just ahead of the Tories, with the Lib Dems falling behind, and the caption “Lib Dems can’t win here”. “Two-horse race” reads the banner down the side.

So which is it?

Lib Dems speak of a constituency full of lifelong Conservatives fed up with the party but who could never bring themselves to vote Labour. “It’s a step too far, but they like the Liberal Democrats,” Holland-Lindsay tells me. A Ferrari drives past as she knocks on the door of what looks like a Georgian manor house; a former Conservative councillor opens it, and tells her he’s backing her.

But when I visit Shefford to meet the Labour team, it is the face of Alistair Strathern who adorns the posters put up by residents in the pebble-dashed houses. Labour points out that it was runner-up in 2019, that it has been the bookies’ favourite for a month, and that the idea blue voters won’t switch to red just isn’t true.

As we pass one house, Strathern tells me about its resident, Lee, a man who has always voted Conservative but who feels “deeply let down” by the chaos of the government in recent years. “He’s someone who would never have considered himself likely to be a Labour voter, but he’s come out and said this time round he’s going to be voting for me.” Not just that, but Lee is publicly endorsing Labour, making a video as part of a series the campaign is running showing voters changing their mind.

Labour HQ has also been taking a keen interest. Members of the shadow cabinet have found time to visit while Strathern has held town halls to get a sense of local issues. Though the other campaigns have framed him as a “London councillor”, he too grew up in the area, moving back here with his partner to stand as a candidate when the by-election was called. As we knock on doors, school places and the quality of education come up repeatedly; Strathern sympathises. He points in the direction of the local school he attended and tells them he used to be a maths teacher, then says he brought the shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson up here to explain the issues to her.

The question voters keep asking both Strathern and Holland-Lindsay is: who do we need to vote for to get the Conservatives out? “I’m very torn between Labour and Lib Dem,” one NHS worker admits. “I want one of the two to get in and kick the Tories out. I don’t want the Tories to edge ahead.”

But this could well be what happens. I was told that the Conservative candidate, Festus Akinbusoye, didn’t have time to speak to me, but as the police and crime commissioner for Bedfordshire he too is well acquainted with the area and knows the challenges facing it. His campaign, like the others, has been ruthlessly focused on local issues, particularly opposition to new housing developments. One Conservative familiar with the campaign said Dorries’ tantrum at Rishi Sunak has actually helped Akinbusoye: by dramatically distancing herself from the present iteration of the Tory party, Dorries has made it easier for the Tory candidate to differentiate himself from her.

If that seems like a stretch, just remember how big the Conservative majority is. While turnout is usually low in by-elections and the Tories are predicting many of their voters will simply not turn out on polling day, it’s still a huge challenge to overturn the voting habits of a century. And with both main opposition candidates insisting they are the one to vote tactically for, there’s a real risk the Conservatives could limp across the line. Strathern admits it would be “really heart-breaking” if that were the result – but neither he nor Holland-Lindsay are backing down.

On Thursday (12 October), with one week to go, the betting exchange Smarkets still gave Labour the best odds of victory, with the Conservatives catching up rapidly in second and the Lib Dems third. However this plays out, one thing’s for sure: the people of Mid Bedfordshire are not being taken for granted any more.

[See also: Who can beat the Tories in Mid Bedfordshire?]

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