It is too close to call in the Selby and Ainsty by-election – a constituency the vast majority of which I represented in parliament from 1997 to 2010 before boundary changes took hold. They say there is nothing more ex than an ex-MP. Whilst I was out canvassing one local resident opened the door, looked at me cautiously and then proclaimed: “Ah the return of the living dead!”
Football fans of various long-standing clubs sometimes urge younger fans to learn their history in order to put both victory and defeat on the field of play into a proper context. The same can apply in politics. Although generally a safe Conservative seat since long before universal suffrage, there has nevertheless been the occasional close electoral contest in the area.
Selby through the years
The last by-election in Selby, which was on 13 October 1905 is a case in point. The seat was then known as Barkston Ash. The Liberal candidate Joseph Andrews won by just 228 votes. The constituency had previously always been Tory, but the victor never got to swear the oath of allegiance and take his seat in the House of Commons. This was because parliament was dissolved for the general election which took place in early 1906. The Liberals swept the country but the Conservatives narrowly won back Barkston Ash.
Fast forward to the general election in 1945, shortly after the defeat of Hitler. The Labour candidate Bert Hazell lost the Barkston Ash constituency, which included Selby and the surrounding villages, by just 116 votes. Hazell, who was a champion of the rights of agricultural workers, died in 2009 aged 101. He once told me he would have won the seat if only the party had had more cars to ferry Labour voters from some of the villages to the polling stations!
Finally in 1997 Selby, which by then was the name of the constituency, went Labour. I was fortunate enough to win on the back of the Blair landslide. In 2005, despite Selby being the 19th most marginal Labour seat and the party losing nearly 50 constituencies on the night, I managed to hang on by fewer than 500 votes.
Boundary changes, which took effect for the 2010 election, removed York University and villages like Copmanthorpe, Fulford and Dunnington from the patch, adding in the ‘Ainsty’. The Ainsty covers an area of mostly affluent villages between York and Harrogate. This was previously a subdivision of the West Riding of Yorkshire – also known as a ‘wapentake’ or administrative division – dating back to the tenth century! In the decade that followed, the Tory majority climbed steadily to 20,000.
Selby’s political geography
The constituency is the reverse of England when it comes to its political geography. Labour is strongest in the south particularly in Selby town itself and the Conservative strength increases the further north you travel. If you just visit Selby and draw conclusions from there, it would be like visiting New York and concluding the whole of the United States must be Democrat.
The Tories have always done well in the traditional brewery town of Tadcaster (the only one in England to have three large such establishments – namely Sam Smith’s, John Smith’s and Coors). On the edge of West Yorkshire the expanding Sherburn in Elmet (whose local parish voted to become a town council in 2022) is always a tight contest in local elections. Other villages such as Brotherton and Byram are much closer to Pontefract and Castleford than they are to Selby.
Coal mining came and went quickly in Selby. At its peak it was the most productive coal mine in Europe producing 12 million tonnes, opening in 1983 and closing in 2004. Many miners commuted from West Yorkshire, but perhaps 1,500 settled in the area with their families and their votes could be crucial in the by-election.
By-election in Selby and Ainsty
Selby and the Ainsty is a farming area but there are far more people commuting into Leeds or York and indeed working in manufacturing or power generation (including Drax) than earning their living in agriculture. Some 75% of homes are owner occupied, which will make mortgages a key concern of many voters. Moreover, the almost complete disappearance of evening and Sunday, or even sometimes daytime, buses in the multitude of villages, makes this form of transport a particularly resonant issue.
Further boundary changes, which will take effect from the next general election, mean the northern part of the constituency including Tadcaster, will join Wetherby. Selby and Sherburn in Elmet will form part of a new constituency which will cross the county boundary, taking in the Leeds ward of Kippax and Methley. Labour will probably need to win this seat in 2024 if it’s to get a comfortable majority in the next parliament.
So, with Labour needing a general election swing the like of which is rarely seen (even under Tony Blair), it will be interesting to see what happens in this week’s by-election. All I can say is that the elections of 1905, 1945 and 2005 in Selby suggest that once in a political generation, or maybe two, things get very interesting around these parts.