The new MP for Wakefield, Simon Lightwood, focused much of his election campaign on ‘booting’ Boris Johnson from No 10 and he successfully turned Imran Ahmad Khan’s 3,358 majority into a 4,925 defeat for the Conservatives. For all Labour’s jubilation (and relief) the Conservatives may yet be the victors in a general election if opposition parties fail to energise the ‘stay at homes’ or speak to their needs and aspirations.
The Wakefield turnout dropped from 64% in 2019 to 39.5% in 2022, a fall of just under 25%. Some 60% of the electorate did not vote. The Conservative Party vote went from 28,283 votes (47.35%) to 13,166 (30%) – a drop 15,117 votes. But at 13,166 votes, Lightwood polled fewer that Mary Creagh (17,925) Wakefield’s previous MP who lost to Khan in 2019. In other words, Labour did not so much ‘win’ Wakefield but the Conservatives lost it resoundingly – and not to Labour – but to the ‘stay at homes’.
The Conservative Party now appears to view the extreme right and ex-UKIP voters as its ‘base’, which it is endeavouring to keep on side while hoping its traditional supporters might stay at home rather than vote for another party. Although the Conservatives lost Wakefield, the election results might confirm this strategy as the one most likely to be successful (or the least damaging) in ‘red wall’ seats. The Conservative loss is significant but not exceptional for a previously Labour-held seat, gained with a comparatively slim majority and in the middle of an election cycle.
In addition to the Conservatives, there were seven other right-wing and extreme right-wing parties standing, indicating that Wakefield is still considered to be fertile ground for the right. Those standing included Reform, Britain First, Freedom Alliance, Christian People’s Alliance, English Democrats, UKIP and Jayda Fransen (formerly English Defence League) as an independent. These parties, in total, only managed 1,337 votes (4.86%). In 2019 there were 3,179 (7%) votes for UKIP and Stephen Whyte (Brexit). Jayda Fransen got just 23 votes which may indicate there is little appetite for far-right racism.
Tiverton and Honiton
Tiverton and Honiton also saw a drop in voter turnout, as is normal for a by-election – from 59,613 (71.9%) at the general election to 47,707 (52.3%) – but the scale of indifference was not so great as Wakefield. In 2019 the combined Lib Dem, Labour and Green vote was 22,752; this election it was 25,163 indicating a significantly higher vote for an ‘anti-Conservative’ party on a significantly smaller turn out which suggests that anti-Conservative sentiment was particularly high in the constituency (the combined left-of-centre vote dropped by a third in Wakefield).
The Conservatives retained 38.5% of the Tiverton and Honiton vote but lost spectacularly, in comparison with Wakefield where they retained only 30% of the vote but lost by a much smaller margin. Given all that has happened in the past few months and the unpopularity of Johnson, there is a still a strong Conservative vote capable of winning elections – unless there are electoral pacts, and voters can be persuaded to vote.
The importance of getting the vote out
If the Conservative Party strategy under Lynton Crosby is to encourage those who previously have voted for them but will not do so in the future to stay at home, then it is working well in Wakefield as this Byline TV clip shows. The women in this video are well able to articulate their anger with Johnson and think he should have resigned but are not inclined to vote for another party that might get him out. Left and left-leaning parties will not only have to work together but will need to convince women like these to vote for them, and to feel that their vote counts.
Labour worked extremely hard in Wakefield – and it was barely enough. Lib Dems worked even harder in Tiverton and Honiton and it may have contributed more to their eventual win than being the strongest anti-Johnson candidate. Lib Dems flooded the area with teams of activists from all over the country, did several leaflet drops, including one to 20,000 households on the morning of the election, and had a high social media presence.
The streets, houses and verges were awash with posters and ensured the party was a real and effective presence. By the time it came to put crosses in boxes, Lib Dems were a positive choice for local people who wanted to be well-represented and not just to mark an anti-Boris vote.
Labour needs to take note. Voters want more than just a change of government.