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  1. The Weekend Report
10 February 2024

Wellingborough by-election: is Labour on course for another Tory turnover?

The Conservatives are struggling in yet another former stronghold – and the threat of Reform may prove most worrying.

By Rachel Cunliffe

It’s a blustery January afternoon on the outskirts of Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, but Genevieve Kitchen isn’t letting the Arctic winds stop her from canvassing.

“I have hand-warmers!” she tells me excitedly, taking a rechargeable electric warming pad out of her pocket and explaining its use on the doorstep: she can shake voters’ hands in freezing weather without having to keep taking her gloves off.

Kitchen has been shaking a lot of hands lately. She and the Labour team have been getting ready for the Wellingborough by-election for more than three months, long before it was formally called and the date – Thursday 15 February – set.

The circumstances of this by-election are fascinating. On 25 October, the incumbent Conservative MP for Wellingborough, Peter Bone, who had held the seat since 2005, was suspended from parliament for six weeks following an investigation into accusations of bullying and sexual misconduct. As his suspension was longer than ten days, a recall petition was triggered – giving Labour the chance to win its fifth by-election in a year.

Kitchen grew up in Northamptonshire, where her parents still live, and 2019 she had stood as the Labour candidate in the neighbouring seat of South Northamptonshire (held by Andrea Leadsom).

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“I was on honeymoon when this all kicked off,” she tells me. “We were on the Suffolk coast, in a nice little pub B&B.” When Kitchen got the call from the East Midlands Labour team asking if she wanted another shot at running, she was “on the beach with fish and chips in one hand and my two dogs in the other.”

“We left honeymoon early… We don’t do things by halves.”

By the time the recall petition closed, with enough signatures (10 per cent of constituents) to oust Bone, Kitchen’s life was already “eating, sleeping and door-knocking”. (She has also, one of her staff says, been making Taylor Swift friendship bracelets for the campaign volunteers.) She hasn’t been alone: a stream of shadow cabinet ministers have dropped by to help out – Wes Streeting, Bridget Phillipson, Rachel Reeves. As we’re chatting, Ellie Reeves, the shadow chancellor’s sister and the Labour Party deputy national campaign coordinator, arrives to offer a hand.

On paper, Labour shouldn’t have a chance here. Once a bellwether (the seat was won by Labour in 1997 by just 187 votes), since turning blue in 2005 Wellingborough has become a Tory stronghold. In 2019, while Kitchen was valiantly losing across the constituency border, Bone won a majority of 18,540. If this were a general election it wouldn’t even be a target seat, one of the Labour campaign staff tells me. Labour would need an 18-point swing to win here. “It was the Conservatives’ seat to lose – 18,500 is a crazy majority to become a marginal,” Kitchen says.

But a combination of factors have given the team confidence. First, a sweep of giddying by-election wins last year – in Selby and Ainsty, Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire – have shown that Labour is capable of overturning majorities in the tens of thousands. One staffer likens the circumstances around Wellingborough to that of Nadine Dorries’s former constituency, Mid Bedfordshire, which lies just a few miles to the south and has a similar makeup: a couple of large towns (Wellingborough and more affluent Rushden), growing commuter populations, and then a scattering of rural villages.

Mid Beds was considered one of the safest Conservative seats until Dorries flounced out of parliament and Labour’s Alistair Strathern swept in. Crucially, that October by-election proved that Labour could win support directly from lifelong Tory voters fed up with the last few years of chaos. It’s a campaign Kitchen is hoping to replicate.

Then there is the choice of the Tory candidate. Given why the by-election came about, the selection of Helen Harrison by the local Conservative association was unexpected. Harrison is a local councillor in the constituency, but she is also the girlfriend of the disgraced Peter Bone. Six years ago, Bone caused a scandal by leaving his wife, whom he had often referred to in innuendo-laden comments in the House of Commons, to be with Harrison. If curious voters google the Conservative candidate, the first thing they’ll find are stories about the affair and the allegations that led to Bone’s suspension.

I made several attempts to chat to Harrison, but was told by her campaign team that it wasn’t feasible as she wanted to spend as much time as possible knocking on doors talking to voters. She did, however, give an interview last month in which she said she believed the allegations against Bone “to be untrue” and reiterated his assertion that they are “unfair and unfounded”. I was told she was happy for Bone to be supporting her in the campaign.

Wandering through Wellingborough town centre, with its boarded-up shopfronts, discount stores and the market square that hasn’t hosted a market for years, I stumbled across the local Conservative campaign HQ, based in Bone’s old constituency office. The windows were plastered with posters bearing Harrison’s face, but when I looked through the lights were off and there was no sign of recent activity. The office looked dilapidated and felt deserted. When I raised this with Harrison’s campaign team, I was told staff were probably not in the office when I dropped by because they were out canvassing.

The Tory campaign is making much of Harrison’s local roots, accusing the other candidates of being interlopers from London (where Kitchen has been a councillor). They are also playing up her Brexit credentials as a director of Grassroots Out, an organisation funded by Arron Banks in the run-up to the EU referendum. One of Harrison’s staffers told me that 70 per cent of Wellingborough voters voted for Leave in 2016 (though actually it was 62 per cent). I was told that immigration was a hot-button issue here, and that there was widespread support for the Tories’ Rwanda plan. The priorities on Harrison’s posters reflect this blend of local and national issues: “Stop the boats, improve our local NHS, fix the roads”.

The focus from the Tory campaign to voters seems to be less on Labour and more about winning back support from the other wildcard factor here: Nigel Farage’s Reform party.

At the party’s New Year’s press conference on 4 January, its leader Richard Tice announced to much fanfare that the deputy leader Ben Habib would stand as the Wellingborough candidate. This was something of an anti-climax given the speculation that Farage himself might stand, or that Bone might defect from the Tories. (This was before Harrison was revealed as the Tory candidate – there have been accusations that Conservative Campaign Headquarters ensured she got on to the selection to discourage Bone from running as an independent or Reform candidate. Her team robustly denies this.) But Habib is the highest-profile Reform figure after Farage and Tice. Once a Conservative voter and donor, he was an MEP for the Brexit Party in 2019.

“We’re not Tory-lite,” he told me when we chatted the week before polling day, stressing that the Reform tactic is to attract disillusioned voters from both the Conservatives and Labour. It argues the two main parties are “two sides of the same coin”. Still, there is no doubt which party Reform’s platform – which includes cutting taxes, reversing net zero and taking a tougher line on immigration – will be most threatening to.

Habib is running an “awareness campaign” for Reform in a landscape where voters may not even have heard of it. As well as the usual door-knocking, he’s been hosting meetings and roundtables to get to know the constituency – and for constituents to get to know him. He too has been joined by some familiar faces. Kate Hoey, once one of the few Labour MPs who campaigned vigorously for Brexit and now a cross-bench peer, visited last month to support Habib. A week later, he was joined by the former Tory minister then Brexit Party MEP Ann Widdecombe. Even Andrew Bridgen, who had the Conservative whip removed for his anti-vax position, visited. There’s a sense that while Reform knows its chances of winning here are slim, Wellingborough is about laying the groundwork for its national campaign and seeing just how low the party can push the Tory vote. Habib, who hails from London, assured me he’d be standing again in Wellingborough when the general election is called.

“I don’t want to fight the Brexit wars,” Habib says. “Brexit” doesn’t appear on Reform’s posters, which instead trumpet “Save Britain”, “Champion the UK” and “Slash immigration”. But while Brexit is no longer a headline voter concern, Habib says it comes up “tangentially” on the doorstep – “people are very aware that they didn’t get what they voted for”. That sentiment, of the Brexit promise being squandered by Conservatives in Westminster, is at the heart of the Reform pitch.

When I ask Habib what a good result for Reform would be, he manages expectations and says coming third. But he adds: “A really good result would be being in the top two. Obviously the best result would be winning!” He’s been tweeting about the election being a “two-horse race” between Reform and Labour, pointing out that the bookies now give Reform better odds than the Conservatives.

In 2019, the third-placed Liberal Democrats got 4,078 votes; Reform should match that in a seat with such high Brexit support and where Ukip came second in 2015. If Reform’s populist, pro-Brexit, anti-immigration message is going to resonate anywhere, it will be in places like Wellingborough. Despite sitting at 10-12 per cent in opinion polls, it has yet to achieve much success on the ground. As James Blagden, head of politics and polling at the centre-right think tank Onward, points out to me, since 2019 Reform has only averaged 2.9 per cent support in by-elections; for context, Ukip was averaging 17 per cent in the run-up to 2015.

“As many as one in seven 2019 Conservative voters say they would vote Reform today,” Blagden says. “That alone could cost the Conservatives dozens of seats and the party needs to give those voters a reason to come back. But despite a high level of interest in Reform, polling in the double digits nationally, the party has so far failed to convert this into crosses on ballots at recent by-elections. Wellingborough will be a key test of whether their rhetoric on social media and on TV can be converted into actual votes.”

For all that Reform could help Labour by splitting the right-wing vote, Kitchen is trying not to get distracted. She says in her experience people rarely bring up Brexit when she knocks on their doors (except for Remain voters who want a second referendum or for Labour to pursue a closer relationship with the EU). The focus is more on the cost-of-living crisis dominating voter concerns up and down the country, and on “bread-and-butter” local issues: the lack of a hospital or adequate dental services in the constituency (“you can’t get an NHS dentist here, if an NHS dentist opens in the county then the entire county goes to it”), the crumbling state of high streets, the worrying rise in knife crime, and – of course – potholes.

The mood of the Labour campaign is cautious. They stress again and again that Wellingborough is a “Tory heartlands” seat, and that just being in the running is an achievement. Whatever happens, they say, this by-election is revealing something important.

“The reception between 2019 and now, I cannot overstate how different it is,” Kitchen recalls of her experience in the next-door constituency. “In 2019 I had farmers with shotguns, I had water over me, nappies thrown at us. It was awful. I was dressing up to go out canvassing in my Hunter wellies and my Barbour jacket so people didn’t feel threatened by me.”

Now, the people she speaks to may or may not commit to voting Labour, but they’re prepared to at least hear Kitchen out. It’s a long way to have come in just four years. If the Tories lose here, it’s hard to imagine where in the country they might be safe.

[See also: Anas Sarwar: I can’t afford an “unpopular” Labour government]

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