WAKEFIELD, West Yorkshire – “I think it was frustration. Frustration with the lack of opportunities.
Ben Morgan, a manufacturing pundit, tries to explain what may have led his hometown of Wakefield to elect a Tory MP in 2019, for the first time in over 80 years.
“It was voting for change, something different,” adds Morgan, sitting at a table outside a craft beer spot in the city center. He rolls his eyes at his own words.
It’s not hard to see why the sentiment rings hollow for voters in this part of West Yorkshire.
A by-election is being held here on June 23, sparked by the conviction last month of newly elected Conservative MP Imran Ahmad Khan of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old in 2008. He was sentenced to 18 months in jail. .
Given the circumstances, the majority of the 3,300 Tories over Labor looks slimmer here, and the party is already directing its firepower elsewhere. Another by-election will be held on the same day in Tiverton, south-west England, a traditionally Conservative seat the party hopes to retain despite a growing Liberal Democrat insurgency.
The parallel contests underscore Boris Johnson’s competing demands as he seeks to protect gains made in working-class seats in the North in the last general election, while defending more affluent – and supposedly safe – Tory seats deeply irritated by his cavalier approach to leadership.
The grim circumstances of Khan’s departure have resulted in some sort of consensus that Wakefield is a unique case: Labor will get him back almost by default, and there are no wider lessons to be learned from this sad episode.
Still, the lackluster campaign playing out on the streets of Wakefield offers clues as to how the two main parties see their way to success in the upcoming general election. It’s not always pretty to look at.
On the defensive
Labor and the Conservatives took similar rearguard actions in what is expected to be a fiercely contested battleground siege.
Their respective candidates appear to be safe, albeit disappointing, choices. Tory hopeful Nadeem Ahmed is a local campaigner with established City Council credentials – affectionately described as ‘a nice man – that’s all’ by a fellow councilor – while Labor candidate Simon Lightwood was an aide to a Labor MP before taking up employment with the NHS.
Lightwood’s main engagement has been to block the closure of a local medical center, shining a light on his NHS credentials. (Opponents say the clinic is not slated for closure, only for renegotiation of its funding.) Ahmed has promised to bring the city’s covered market back — a nostalgia-tinged idea that draws groans from a young couple in their thirties in a cafe near the cathedral. “My dad’s been talking about it since the 80s,” said one.
More importantly, voters seem disillusioned with competing party visions for the nation – if such visions can be said to exist.
Dan Harper, who runs a web design business in Wakefield, says he is inclined to vote Labor despite an uninspiring visit from party canvassers.
“They didn’t come to tell me anything about the policies,” he complains. “They were just determined to say ‘get Boris out’.”
For their part, many Tories believe their best hope is to remind Wakefield, who voted by a 63% majority to leave the EU, that it was Johnson who ultimately delivered Brexit in 2020.
Surprisingly, in Westminster the party chose to spend the last week in a very public war of words with Brussels, after unveiling controversial plans to overturn parts of the Brexit deal Johnson signed in 2019.
“I certainly think we may be fighting the last war,” says a desperate member of the local Conservative Party. “We are obsessed with Brexit – we keep talking about it.”
Andrea Jenkyns, an outspoken Tory MP who was at the forefront of Tory advances in West Yorkshire after a famous victory over Labor leader Ed Balls in 2015, demanded Union Jacks be splashed on every leaflet distributed in Wakefield, and wants Brexit mentioned in every doorstep conversation, according to several regional campaigners.
It looks like voters can expect a lot more of that as the next general election approaches.
David Canzini, Johnson’s hard-hitting deputy chief of staff, recently told Downing Street staff: “Anyone who doesn’t think the next election is about Brexit should leave the room.”
Harper confirms that the message is getting through, at least in her social circle. “There’s stuff going around on Facebook saying if you vote Labor they’ll bring us back to the EU.”
Elephant in the room
But the untested question is whether Brexit remains the vote winner for Johnson it once was.
Harper’s colleague Ross Featherstone complains that the parties have curiously no say on the central issue that exercises people in Wakefield and across the country.
Inflation could hit 11% this year, the Bank of England warned last week, while the centrally set energy price cap is set to rise by 32% in October, following similarly crippling increases in april. Gas prices at the pump are at record highs.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak has announced measures to offset living costs worth £15billion, and the government insists it is doing all it can to help the most vulnerable. The question is whether it feels that way for those on the cutting edge.
Featherstone spends much of his time on Leeds United football fan forums, where he says “the general consensus is, from all sides of the political spectrum, that the government could do more to help”.
Driving to football games or to the coast are no longer affordable outings, he says. “People say they can’t get to work because it’s too expensive.”
The local conservative activist quoted above insists on the same point. “We seem to think that if we bring in (prominent Brexiteer) Jacob Rees-Mogg for half an hour people will go ‘oh, Brexit’ and then vote Conservative. It does not work like that. People are really worried about paying the bills. They don’t care about Brexit.
Wakefield – a historic town that boasts a medieval cathedral, grand Victorian houses and the brand new Hepworth Gallery – does not fit comfortably into the “Red Wall” category of Labour-owned industrial towns that first turned Conservative in 2019 .
But in common with so many of these seats, there remains locally the feeling of an overlooked area that doesn’t live up to its full potential.
In the city center, erratic planning decisions mean that rival malls are vying for too few customers, while big brands have moved into retail park and left empty units closed. Lack of access to affordable transport is a long-standing problem. Government promises to “level up” deprived towns in the north have made uneven progress.
Oliver Dowden, the chairman of the Conservative Party, has been criticized for a series of politically charged tweets targeting nationwide rail strikes affecting the UK next week, as an ongoing local bus strike in West Yorkshire has a much greater impact on people’s lives. .
It was a small misstep, but one that speaks to a long-standing disconnect between the Conservative Party’s (CCHQ) campaign headquarters in London and seats in the north where the party made unprecedented gains in the last election.
Current and former party officials say the 2019 victory in Wakefield was the result of many years of hard work by local activists, but CCHQ had previously failed to take their prospects seriously due to flawed election strategy.
A former employee claims that the central party organization fails to offer effective support to local parties. They complained that the CCHQ is “broken down between elections and rebuilt”, causing “a haemorrhage of institutional memory and expertise”. Senior party officials have chosen to quit rather than move to a new announced outpost in Leeds.
Questions are now mounting as to whether the Tories’ historic 2019 triumph in the Northern seats is indeed entrenched. Tensions came to the fore on Friday, when Johnson canceled his attendance at a high-profile meeting of Northern Conservatives in Yorkshire to pay a social visit to Ukraine. The reaction of those present was furious.
With a general election slated for the next two years, time is running out for Johnson to deliver Northern voters the tangible benefits they have come to expect after backing the Tories for the first time in 2019.
And for Labor too, the window to set out a competing vision for Britain is rapidly shrinking.