Yesterday, the women of Wakefield spoke for many of us when they were interviewed by Byline TV about their opinions of the prime minister: he and his party are out of touch with the lives of ordinary people (see video below). A few hours later, the people’s votes were in and the Tories were out in this traditionally red wall seat. Sir Keir Starmer and Sheffield MP Louise Haigh echoed the views of the Wakefield ladies, and a few hours later Oliver Dowden, chair of the Conservative Party, tacitly agreed and resigned, prompting rumours of a snap general election.
Get out of the way for the sake of the country
Starmer didn’t put it as graphically as the Wakefield women, who grimly invited the prime minister to spend a week with them to experience their lives of deprivation, but he summed up their wish to see Johnson gone and let Labour focus on the issues affecting working people. “Get out of the way for the sake of the country”, he stated in early morning televised interviews.
That was precisely what Helen Hurford (Con) was doing in the very different constituency of Tiverton and Honiton where, inspired by the PM who hid in a fridge to evade media scrutiny, she locked herself in a dance studio at Crediton. Meanwhile, Jacob Rees-Mogg has decided that in order to help MPs evade media scrutiny, their attendance records at the House of Commons would cease to be public.
Turnout in Wakefield was just 39.09%, compared to 52.16% in Tiverton and Honiton. And the swing away from the Conservatives was likewise lower in Wakefield at 12.6%, whereas down in Devon it was almost 30% and the Liberal Democrats won a resounding victory. Yet Labour’s win in Wakefield is – as Starmer suggested – a very good omen indeed. And by-election turnouts across the poorer parts of Yorkshire – from Hull to Batley and Spen – have historically been low, and yesterday this was compounded by the Arriva bus strike that has been reducing footfall across Wakefield district for several weeks.
Lies, distractions and partygate
The issue that had consistently dominated the by-election was partygate. Voters from across the political spectrum told Byline TV that Johnson’s lies about the Downing Street parties, his attempts at distraction, and the fact his ministers and staff clearly consider themselves to be above the law, were the final straw.
The scornful faces of the women interviewed in Wakefield certainly expressed this well. They did not disguise their anger at the £1,000 fines levied on six of their friends for meeting in their back garden, while the PM and ‘his mates’ got away with £50 fixed penalty notices. And they were particularly contemptuous of the way we had all been encouraged to clap for NHS staff, when behind the scenes Johnson and co were treating the lockdown rules with utter disdain.
Sir Ed Davey on Sky News Friday morning referred to the PM as a “lying law-breaker”. Caroline Lucas from the Green Party called on Johnson to resign after the “utter humiliation” of the by-election losses, and former Tory leader Michael Howard agreed Johnson should resign. Former Conservative attorney general Dominic Grieve likewise said the results “ought to be disastrous for the prime minister”, but told Sky News‘ Kay Burley:
“Seeing his personality and his general attitude to truth and indeed to any sort of self-awareness, I don’t suppose he’s going to move or do anything about it, I don’t expect his resignation.”
Gavin Barwell, Theresa May’s former chief of staff, responded to the resignation of the Conservative Party chairperson by saying that unless more Tory MPs follow his example, they would end up spending the “prime of their careers on the opposition benches”.
Despite the pressure to resign, and reminders that former Labour prime minister Tony Blair’s governments won all but one by-election when in office (they only lost one, to the LibDems), Johnson this morning vowed to “keep going”.
Power to the people …
As the Wakefield women revealed, there is now a real sense that the people despise the government for its hypocritical law-breaking and self-serving greed. It’s no longer about reciting the charge-sheet against a government that, as Stella Creasy warned, seemingly ditches any law it dislikes whenever it suits its purposes. A line has now been crossed and the people have had enough.
In the UK, the gap between the rich and poor is the widest in the whole of Europe and public awareness grows daily of ministers doing little for those suffering austerity and poverty. Peter Benson reported last year that ‘Our chancellor lives in luxury while enforcing poverty on millions’ and Open Democracy reported today that his job scheme left young people in debt rather than helping them. Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi previously claimed over £5k to heat his horses’ stables, meanwhile, public sector workers endure more pay cuts, and the need for foodbanks grows.
Sadly, despite expressing a smouldering contempt for the government, most of the people in Wakefield didn’t exercise their right to vote yesterday. The women who were interviewed by Byline TV said there wasn’t any point, “[politicians] just say what they think you want to hear, but they do what they like once in power”. But the reality is that it’s the voters who have this power, if they choose to use it.
Lord Barwell today agreed with the campaign group Best for Britain about the power of tactical voting. Once voters realise that they can remove the Conservatives from office by voting for the party most likely to defeat them in each constituency, then the Tories’ days are numbered. And this is something that worries Conservative MPs.
Not voting hands the government victory on a plate
It is understandable that those who feel they have nothing more to lose (especially economically) feel there’s no point in wasting their time going to vote. The first past the post system favours the bigger parties and doesn’t represent the wide range of political opinion and needs across the country. It allows Westminster to set the agenda, and one that highlights division rather than collaboration for the wellbeing of all.
But not voting only ever benefits the government. It means candidates who want to make change are left without the votes and support they need to turf out the government’s candidates. Result: no change; a self-fulfilling prophesy.
And the longer this set of Conservative MPs are in power, the harder they will make it for the other parties to win. The recent Elections Act is evidence of this. Voter ID laws, that they claimed were needed to tackle election ‘fraud’ (which is almost non-existent), will in fact simply make it harder for the poorest in society to vote. Because these are the people least likely to have electronic ID like driving licences and passports.
Ironically, the very people who see no point in voting – under 50s, those in deprived urban and rural areas – make up the largest number of potential voters in our communities. They are the ones who would benefit most by making sure they can and do vote to get this government out. The power is in their hands.
The Wakefield women are ‘woke’ to unfairness and injustice. They speak for impoverished generations of those ignored by Westminster. If they put themselves on the electoral register where they live, use their voices, and equip themselves and their families to vote, they have the power to make change happen.