Wakefield — the by-election both sides must win
All eyes on Wakefield. The resignation of convicted sex criminal Imran Ahmed Khan means a by-election is on the way, and with it all the attendant rune-reading, augury, crystal-ball gazing and punditry. After the May local elections, the Wakefield by-election will be the first significant test of opinion since the mounting fury over Boris Johnson’s partying as the country suffered Covid lockdown.
The challenge for Keir Starmer’s Labour is to regain a seat lost in the Corbyn pantomime of 2019 and show solid progress since that debacle. For the Tories, defeat will trigger a leadership challenge to Johnson. Each party’s strategy rests entirely on the ability to win Wakefield, and each party’s leadership cannot afford to lose.
Wakefield is an archetypal ‘red wall’ seat. This term is used lazily for any seat north of Brent Cross which the Tories won from Labour. But when it was coined by Tory pollster James Kanagasooriamin (with a nod to the US use of ‘blue wall’ to describe Democrat states) before the 2019 general election, it meant a constituency with more than 55% ‘leave’ vote in 2016, a swing Labour to Tory more than 5% from 2010 to 2017, and a Conservative vote share greater than 25 per cent in 2017.
Deborah Mattison depicts the red wall as ‘old coal, steel and manufacturing constituencies were regarded as the home of the traditional Labour vote: working class men and women whose loyalty has underpinned past Labour victories, including the 1997 landslide. Labour owned these places — many voters had never voted anything else.’ Wakefield, former NUM-stronghold, whose residents voted 116,165 to 58,877 to leave the EU, perfectly matches these criteria. It had voted Labour in every election since a by-election in 1932, until Corbyn.
Wakefield returned five Labour MPs until the Tories won in 2019. The winner of the 1932 by-election was Arthur Greenwood. We all owe Greenwood a huge debt of gratitude for his role in Churchill’s war cabinet in 1940, arguing against appeasement of Hitler, and for the defeat of Nazism. Famously, during the parliamentary debate on 2 September 1939, Tory MP Leo Amery shouted ‘speak for England, Arthur’ and he did.
In 1954, following Greenwood’s death, there was a by-election and Labour’s Arthur Creech Jones, a veteran of the Attlee Government, won. He was replaced in 1964 by Walter Harrison, the legendary Labour whip who was depicted in James Graham’s play This House. Harrison and the Labour whips, through fair means and foul, held the minority Labour Government together night after night, until eventually Callaghan lost the vote of confidence in March 1979. Walter Harrison retired in 1987, handing over to David Hinchliffe, chair of the health select committee, who held the seat until 2005.
Mary Creagh was the first woman to represent Wakefield since the seat was created after the 1832 Reform Act. After 2005 she served the constituency with energy and alacrity, and would be an obvious candidate for Labour to choose for the forthcoming by-election. Yet, the excoriating experience of the Hartlepool by-election in 2021, when the Labour candidate lost to the Tories, will serve as a warning. This was only the second time an incumbent government gained a seat since 1982. Creagh might be a better bet as Labour’s candidate in Islington North, where she previously served as a councillor.
Whoever Labour chooses to fight Wakefield (and no, it won’t be Ed Balls), it will not be a shoo-in. It may seem inevitable that amidst all the controversies about partygate and the cost of living crisis that the opposition party should beat the governing one. But we are living in a time when once-solid political rules sink faster than a Russian warship. It comes down to the psychology of thousands of residents of Wakefield, and the former mining villages surrounding it, who switched from Labour to Tory in 2019.
Will these voters feel ‘buyers’ remorse’ about their choice of Boris Johnson in the winter of 2019, and return to Labour? Has Labour done enough to clean up the mess, and to persuade people it is a substantially distinct party, in terms of values, policy and personnel, from the one they so decisively rejected in 2019? The Corbynites calling them rude names for delivering a Tory majority don’t help to win them back.
Or will they double down on their decision? Will they buy the Tory rhetoric about Johnson as the least-worst leader right now, doing a decent job in tough and unprecedented circumstances? In short, will they want to prove themselves right by doing the same thing twice? They might even stay at home, or shop around for another party. In previous elections, the voters in Wakefield had the chance to vote for the Militant Tendency (sorry, ‘TUSC’), or Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party, not to mention UKIP, Greens or even the Liberal Democrats (who came fourth in the past three general elections).
Recent polling suggests that over half of 2019 Conservative Red Wall voters will not vote Tory again. But the same polls show only one in ten is coming back to Labour. People are rightly rejecting Johnson, but that Starmer has not yet sealed the deal. Perhaps the primary colours of a by-election, and the binary choice between Labour and Tory, will force more people’s hands.
Despite the scandalous circumstances of the by-election itself, the swirling political maelstrom surrounding a Prime Minister fined for breaking the laws the rest of us were obeying, a terrible war in Europe, and a cost-of-living crisis clobbering all but the most affluent, it is entirely possible for the Tories to win Wakefield. They shouldn’t, and they patently don’t deserve to, but it is possible.
For Labour, Wakefield represents the chance to answer one fundamental question — have we gone far enough and fast enough to repair the deep damage of the years between 2015 and 2020? Have we regained a modicum of the trust of the people we so badly offended and let down during those dark years? Is there a light ahead? A defeat (no matter how unthinkable) will signal the urgent need to accelerate the modernisation of Labour’s organisation and policies. The time for piecemeal reform will be replaced by the need for revolution.
A Labour win in Wakefield will vindicate the past two years and serve as a spur to go further. But it should not be a cause for celebration. Remember, winning the Red Wall seats — all of them — just puts Labour back to where it was in 2015. To form a Labour government with a majority of just one requires over 120 net gains, not just Wakefield but also Wimbledon, Worcester and Worthing.
Paul Richards is a writer.