WAKEFIELD, West Yorkshire — “I think it was frustration. Frustration at the lack of opportunities.”
Ben Morgan, a manufacturing specialist, is trying to explain what might have led his home city of Wakefield to elect a Conservative MP in 2019, for the first time in more than 80 years.
“It was voting for change, something different,” adds Morgan, seated 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 taking place here on June 23, triggered by the conviction last month of the newly-elected Tory MP, Imran Ahmad Khan, for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old in 2008. He received a jail sentence of 18 months.
Given the circumstances, the Conservatives’ 3,300-strong majority over Labour here looks wafer thin, and the party is already directing its firepower elsewhere. Another by-election will be held the same day in Tiverton, in southwest England, a traditionally Tory seat which the party hopes to hold despite a growing Liberal Democrat insurgency.
The parallel contests underline the competing demands on Boris Johnson as he seeks to protect gains made in northern, working-class seats at 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 given rise to a kind of consensus that Wakefield is a unique case: the Labour Party will win it back almost by default, and there are no wider lessons to be drawn from the sorry episode.
Yet the lackluster campaign playing out on the streets of Wakefield offers clues to how both main parties see their paths to success in the next general election. It’s not always pretty to watch.
On the defensive
Both Labour and the Conservatives have adopted similar rearguard actions in what ought to be a fiercely contested battleground seat.
Their respective candidates look like safe, if underwhelming, choices. Tory hopeful Nadeem Ahmed is a local activist with established credentials on the city council — described affectionately as “a nice man — that’s it” by one fellow councillor — while Labour candidate Simon Lightwood was an assistant to a Labour MP before taking a job with the NHS.
Lightwood’s main pledge has been to block the closure of a local medical center, burnishing his NHS credentials. (Opponents claim the clinic isn’t earmarked for closure, only for renegotiation of its funding.) Ahmed has promised to bring back the city’s indoor market — a nostalgia-tinged idea which draws groans from a young couple in their 30s in a cafe near the cathedral. “My dad’s been banging on about this since the ’80s,” one of them says.
More significantly, voters seem underwhelmed by the parties’ competing visions for the nation — if such visions can be said to exist at all.
Dan Harper, who runs a website design company in Wakefield, says he’s inclined to vote Labour despite a less-than-inspiring visit from party canvassers.
“They didn’t come around and tell me anything about policies,” he complains. “They were just hell-bent on saying ‘get Boris out.’ ”
For their part, many Conservatives believe their best hope is to remind Wakefield, which voted by a 63 percent majority to leave the EU, that it was Johnson who finally delivered Brexit in 2020.
Strikingly, in Westminster the party has chosen to spend the past week in a very public war of words with Brussels, after unveiling controversial plans to override parts of the Brexit deal Johnson signed in 2019.
“I certainly think we may be fighting the last war,” says one despairing local Conservative Party member. “We’re obsessed with Brexit — we just keep going on about it.”
Andrea Jenkyns, an outspoken Conservative MP who was in the vanguard of Tory advances in West Yorkshire following a famous victory over Labour frontbencher Ed Balls in 2015, has demanded Union Jacks be splashed across every leaflet distributed in Wakefield, and wants Brexit mentioned in every doorstep conversation, according to several regional activists.
It seems voters can expect plenty more of this in the run-up to the next general election.
David Canzini, Johnson’s hard-hitting deputy chief of staff, told staff in Downing Street recently: “Anyone who doesn’t think the next election is about Brexit should leave the room.”
Harper confirms the messaging is cutting through, at least in his social circle. “There’s stuff going round on Facebook saying if you vote Labour, they’ll take us back into 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 the parties have curiously little to say about the central issue exercising people in Wakefield and around the country.
Inflation could hit 11 percent this year, the Bank of England warned last week, while the centrally-fixed energy price cap is expected to rise by 32 percent in October, following similarly crippling hikes back in April. Petrol pump prices are at record highs.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak has announced measures to offset the cost of living worth £15 billion, and the government insists it is doing everything it can to help the most vulnerable. The question is whether it feels that way to those at the sharp end.
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 be doing more to help.”
Driving to football matches or to the coast are no longer affordable days out, he says. “People are saying they can’t get to work because it’s too expensive.”
The local Tory activist quoted above is emphatic on the same point. “We seem to think if we bring (prominent Brexiteer) Jacob Rees-Mogg up for half an hour, people will go ‘oh, Brexit’ and then vote Tory. It doesn’t work like that. People are really worried about paying the bills. They don’t give a shit about Brexit.”
Wakefield — a historic city which boasts a medieval cathedral, grand Victorian houses and the still-new Hepworth Gallery — does not fit comfortably within the “Red Wall” category of Labour-held industrial towns which turned Conservative for the first time in 2019.
But in common with so many of those seats, a sense remains locally of a neglected area not living up to its full potential.
In the city center, erratic planning decisions mean rival shopping malls compete for too few customers, while larger brands have moved out to a retail park and left empty units boarded up. Lack of access to affordable transport is a long-standing bugbear. Government promises to “level up” deprived northern towns have made ragged progress.
Oliver Dowden, the Conservative Party chairman, was criticized for a series of politically-charged tweets taking aim at the national rail strikes affecting the U.K. next week, given that in West Yorkshire, an ongoing local bus strike is having far greater impact on people’s lives.
It was a small misstep, but one which speaks to a long-standing disconnect between Conservative Party campaign headquarters (CCHQ) in London and the northern seats where the party made unprecedented gains at the last election.
Current and former party officials say the 2019 win in Wakefield was the result of many years’ work by local activists, but that CCHQ had previously failed to take their prospects seriously due to flawed electoral strategizing.
A former employee says the party’s central organization is failing to offer local parties effective support. They complained CCHQ is “broken down between elections, and built up again,” leading to “a hemorrhaging of institutional memory and expertise.” Experienced party officials have chosen to quit rather than relocate to a heralded new outpost in Leeds.
Questions are now growing as to whether the Tories’ historic 2019 triumph in northern seats is being effectively entrenched. Tensions came to the fore on Friday, when Johnson cancelled his attendance at a high-profile meeting of northern Conservatives in Yorkshire to make a camera-friendly visit to Ukraine. The reaction of those present was furious.
With a general election expected within the next two years, time is running out for Johnson to offer northern voters the tangible benefits they expected after backing the Conservatives for the first time in 2019.
And for Labour too, the window to set out a competing vision for Britain is shrinking fast.