Wakefield by-election: red wall converts to deal blow to Boris Johnson after let-downs

Polls suggest prime minister's Conservatives will lose seat in aftermath of partygate

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In a place where history hangs heavily, there is one uncomfortable parallel for Boris Johnson as his party face the Wakefield by-election next week: the last time the Conservatives faced a snap poll as incumbents they lost and did not regain the seat for 89 years.

In the 2019 election the seat was one of Labour's forty Red Wall dominos that fell to Boris Johnson when Imran Ahmed Khan who, after only a brief spell in the House of Commons, was forced to resign after being convicted of sexual assault.

The previous Conservative had also been there for a short term. George Brown Hillman was in office less than a year before his sudden death triggered a by-election in 1932 ― in which the seat was again taken by the Labour Party.

Ninety years on and Labour candidate Simon Lightwood, who worked for the city’s former Labour MP Mary Creagh, will be hoping for a similar upset.

Certainly the issues that kept the seat Labour have not gone away completely. Former miner Tony Banks spent his life working down the pits in the northern English city of Wakefield, when mining was a job for life.

He has seized on an attempt at humour by the prime minister that reopened the city's post-industrial wounds.

Last year Mr Johnson quipped that Margaret Thatcher, the former Conservative prime minister, had given the UK an “early start” in the shift away from fossil fuels by closing the pits.

Mr Banks still tends the memorial to those who died in the 1973 Lofthouse Colliery disaster ― one of Britain’s worst modern-day mining tragedies.

Now 79, he was the fifth generation of his family to work in the mines, until Mrs Thatcher closed them all in the early 1980s.

Tony Banks and his colleagues during the six-day rescue operation at Lofthouse Colliery, near Wakefield in West Yorkshire, England, where seven miners were killed.  Getty Images

As Wakefield faces a by-election this month the fall-out from the closures, which brought deprivation, hardship and years of unemployment to the borough, will be one of the issues facing the candidates.

The closures reduced the city from more than 50,000 manufacturing and coal industry jobs in 1981 to just 19,000 in 2019.

“I met her [Margaret Thatcher] once down the pit in Wakefield,” Mr Banks, who now runs the Wakefield Mining Heritage Group, told The National.

“It’s a day I’ll never forget. I was stuck in the cage with her, it was a deep shaft about 40 yards down, I was stood near her security fellow who had a gun, I told him he wasn’t allowed a gun in the mine because of the gas, if it went off we’d all be dead. He wouldn’t listen. Three weeks later he was killed in the Brighton IRA bombing.

“When we reached the bottom she told us ‘you chaps, you’re doing a fine job, you are making a future, you have a job for life’ ... a few years later she’d shut every single one of them.

“The people of Wakefield have never forgotten. It affected all the communities and still does.”

Tony Banks at the Allerton Bywater Miners Memorial. Photo: Outwood Community Video

Boris Johnson's pit closure joke

When Mr Johnson jovially made the comments last August, he undoubtedly was not expecting his party to be fighting a crucial by-election battle in one of the hardest hit mining communities as his leadership hung in the balance after partygate.

Nadeem Ahmed, a local councillor who was born in the area, is the Conservative candidate. He has been joined on the campaign trail by Brexit minister, Jacob Rees-Mogg, but Mr Johnson is yet to be seen.

The ruling party's campaign is not helped by the dilemma of their vote share being split as two former Tory councillors are among the 15 candidates standing.

The former local Conservative Party chairman David Herdson is standing for the Yorkshire Party and city councillor Akef Akbar has put his name in the hat as an independent candidate. Both men felt Mr Johnson should have resigned over partygate.

“Until I saw the other candidates I wasn’t going to stand,” Wakefield solicitor Mr Akbar said.

“But there was no one I thought would actually make a difference for Wakefield. The reality is that I am the best vote for Wakefield, and if we as the residents don’t break this cycle, we’ll never have change.”

Labour hopes Wakefield win will topple Boris Johnson

The opposition Labour Party has lost no time in using Mr Johnson’s faux pas to their advantage.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime vote for Wakefield,” Labour’s candidate Simon Lightwood says. “A big Labour win here could remove Boris Johnson from Number 10. But I need your help to do it.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer talking to locals on the Wakefield by-election campaign trail with Labour candidate Simon Lightwood, left, and local councillor Denise Jeffrey, right. PA

Mr Lightwood’s hopes of removing Mr Johnson may be ambitious, but the prime minister’s party undeniably faces an uphill struggle in the by-election.

Labour candidate in fifth attempt to become MP

But this is Mr Lightwood's fifth attempt at representing Labour and the people of Wakefield could be forgiven for wondering if he recited the same script when he wanted to stand in the Yorkshire regions of Bradford, Calderdale and Scarborough.

“He claims he’s all for Wakefield, but he’s not from here,” electrician Andrew Armitage said.

“Has he been saying all these things about it being his home at all these other places too? He even showed up at the rugby, I bet he’s never been to a game until this month.

“The last Labour MP wasn’t from here either, when we wanted her to vote for Brexit she did the opposite. We want someone who knows the area and will fight for what matters to us. We don’t want to be a political trophy, we just want someone to do the job properly for us.”

Mr Lightwood’s candidacy by the national office led to the city’s Labour team walking out en masse in protest at local candidates being overlooked.

Brexit legacy could hurt Labour and the Conservatives

His predecessor Ms Creagh lost the seat in 2019 by just over 3,000 votes. Her defeat was attributed to her stance on Brexit, in which she voted to remain in the EU against the wishes of many of her constituents who voted for Brexit.

Care worker Steve Walters visits the city’s residential homes and regularly chews the fat with the elderly as he plays them golden oldies on his guitar.

He knows how fed up the city feels after having being left unrepresented for months and is anticipating that the Brexit disquiet of 2019 will not play a part this time.

Wakefield care worker Steve Walters believes Brexit will not play a part in the by-election. Photo: Nicky Harley / The National

“The last election was different,” he said.

“I fully expect a Labour victory after the brief turnaround that was down to Brexit, in my opinion.

“Our next MP should be a fresh start for the people of Wakefield. Being an MP should be a simple job really ... there's a clue in the title ... Member of Parliament ... if whomever it is can be seen to fight for the wants and needs of their local community, recognise their priorities and always put their best interests at heart, then they should be very successful.”

Mr Johnson will be hoping Brexit is not an issue after a 2016 interview in Asian Express emerged of his candidate Mr Ahmed claiming the Brexit campaign was “built on lies”, he regretted voting for it and would back a second referendum ― despite the Tories attracting key new voters in 2019 because of Brexit.

For others, rising energy and food bills are more pressing concerns.

People concerned over rising food and energy costs

Carrie Whitworth, a mother of four and former soldier in the British Army, is living on the breadline, struggling to make ends meet and wants more help for families.

“It’s a struggle at the moment,” she said.

“People want a politician who is going to fight to help us. Right now I’m pretty sick of Boris Johnson. Not only am I and others struggling to put food on the table and buy school uniforms, but it’s all the lockdown parties they had when we were all behaving. He’s just laughing at us.

“We couldn’t visit our loved ones in hospital while he ate cake.”

Wakefield town centre ahead of the by-election. Getty Images

But others are less critical.

“He’s not perfect, but neither was Churchill,” florist Aneta Bak-Ford said.

Her views are echoed by Linda Foster.

“He’s made mistakes, but at the end of the day we were the first to get Covid vaccines, he’s supporting the Ukraine war effort and I think mostly he’s trying his best,” she said.

“I don’t think he’s doing too bad a job.”

Labour victory would send 'strong signal' it can win back lost seats

Kings College London politics professor, Anand Menon, remembers a time in the 1990s when he could not buy a copy of the Financial Times in Wakefield.

Things have not changed since then and tabloid newspapers still set the tone for the talk in the cafes.

It is still the largest city in the country without its own university or football team and has few well-paid jobs.

Mr Johnson is hoping to help industrial regions like Wakefield through his levelling-up agenda, under which the area will benefit from £24.9 million ($30.56 million) in funding.

But whether it will be enough to convince voters to give his party a second chance remains to be seen.

Prof Menon believes a Labour victory in Wakefield will send a “powerful signal” that it can begin to win back its Red Wall heartland seats ― 20 per cent of which it lost in the 2019 election ― and will be a “real test” for its leader Sir Keir Starmer.

Sir Keir not taking potential by-election win for granted

Two recent polls put Labour 20 points ahead of the Conservatives but after losing the seat in 2019, Mr Starmer is not counting his chickens just yet.

"We are not taking anything for granted,” he said when he visited Wakefield’s high street.

“We are not even looking at those polls, we are looking at what conversations we are having with people on the doorstep about what matters to them and how we earn their trust and re-earn their trust.”

With the election looming, the city is already tiring of being under the nation’s lens.

When a mining monument was opened this month, some of the prospective candidates attended.

“I didn’t speak to them,” Mr Banks said.

“I haven’t got a problem with them, I just don’t go down that street. I’ve seen what’s happened before, look what Thatcher said to us. We were there to remember the lads who have lost their lives, not for politics.”

Mr Banks spends his retirement visiting schools and educating the next generation about their mining heritage and is behind the city’s pit memorials.

After a lifetime at the coalface, he choses not to get involved in politics now, but as he laid fresh flowers at the city’s memorial he shared one last piece of wisdom.

“My view is let’s see what happens,” he said.

“They can’t do worse than the last one.”

Updated: June 24, 2022, 4:53 AM
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