Chicken runs, boundary changes and a battle of economists: On the campaign trail in new constituency Hitchin

Alistair Strathern canvassing in Hertfordshire (Labour)
Alistair Strathern canvassing in Hertfordshire (Labour)

In the picturesque Hertfordshire market town of Hitchin, the Tory and Labour general election campaigns have been neatly summed up.

Contesting the seat for Labour is 34-year-old ex-Bank of England economist Alistair Strathern, who proudly describes himself as an acolyte of “Sir Keir Starmer’s changed Labour Party”.

Hoping to hold the seat for the Conservatives is 38-year-old former HSBC executive Bim Afolami, the Treasury economic secretary elected to parliament in 2017.

Leaflets for Mr Afolami’s campaign, seen by The Independent on a visit to the constituency, show he is hoping to win as a strong local champion for the area.

But voters spoken to by this paper said the minister’s close association with the Conservatives nationally, as he is often wheeled out to defend the party on broadcast rounds, has tarnished his reputation in the area.

In 2019, the Liberal Democrats came in second place in the former Hitchin and Harpenden constituency with 20,824 votes to the Tories’ 27,719. The party has a new candidate this time around in local councillor Chris Lucas.

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Conservative candidate Bim Afolami was elected in 2017 (Jordan Pettitt/PA)
Conservative candidate Bim Afolami was elected in 2017 (Jordan Pettitt/PA)

Mr Strathern has his own challenges to overcome. Elected in the Mid Bedfordshire by-election to replace Nadine Dorries in 2023, he was criticised for standing in this general election for Hitchin, with news outlets at the time describing the move as a “chicken run”.

A boundary change meant his house, where he lives with his partner, was actually within the new constituency.

When The Independent met Mr Strathern in the middle of a sunny day of door-knocking he talked about his time representing Mid Bedfordshire and his plans for the area if he is re-elected.

Mr Strathern said one of the biggest differences after taking that seat for Labour for the first time since it was created in 1918 was the area having a visible MP.

Meeting voters on the campaign trail (Labour)
Meeting voters on the campaign trail (Labour)

A key issue he says he has tried to tackle locally is the lack of GP provision, which has seen him establish task forces between the local council and NHS bodies to unblock more funding.

The former teacher and environmental campaigner said, alongside economics, the topics he would be most passionate about in the next partnership would be children, young people and the environment.

Speaking about voters falling in behind the campaign, Mr Strathern said: “There are people voting for us who have voted Conservative all their lives who feel the party has let the country down, descended into chaos and lost touch with the values they thought they were voting for at the time.

“We are also seeing people who might have voted Green or Lib Dem before recognising Labour is in a much more positive place now, but also that we are the party that can win.”

Strathern seeks to win over a first-time voter in Hitchin (Independent)
Strathern seeks to win over a first-time voter in Hitchin (Independent)

In the Hermitage coffee shop in central Hitchin, The Independent spoke to two voters who were scathing about Mr Afolami’s government post.

One, a local police officer, said she thought Mr Afolami would lose the seat because of his association with successive Tory governments.

She claimed the minister was a “lap dog” for Liz Truss, despite Mr Afolami not having served in her government. In fact, when the short-serving former PM resigned he said it had “become clear that she had irreparably lost the trust of both the British public and the Conservative parliamentary party”.

But, the officer argued, Mr Afolami’s repeated appearance on broadcast media rounds defending the government’s record had undermined his claims to be an independent voice in the Conservative Party.

The other was a long-standing Labour voter who said she could not wait to see the back of the Conservative candiate.

Strathern replaced Nadine Dorries as MP for Mid Bedfordshire (PA)
Strathern replaced Nadine Dorries as MP for Mid Bedfordshire (PA)

Her 18-year-old politics student daughter was split between the Greens, Lib Dems and Labour for who to back with her first ever vote.

After taking a selfie with Mr Strathern, she put the candidate on the phone with her daughter, who quizzed him on Labour’s strategy to reduce child poverty and invest in the green energy transition. After the call, she remained undecided.

But with the Conservatives trailing Labour by 20 points nationally, all signs point to Mr Strathern taking the newly created seat. Meanwhile a seat-level YouGov poll last week put him on course to claim the constituency, held by the Conservatives in its previous form, Hitchin and Harpenden, since 1997.

Speaking to The Independent, Mr Afolami struck a more optimistic tone. The 38-year-old former HSBC executive, who became an MP in 2017, said he is facing a significant challenge from Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, and it “will be tight, but we are in good shape”.

Afolami’s association with the government hurts his chances, one voter said (EPA)
Afolami’s association with the government hurts his chances, one voter said (EPA)

Like many Tory candidates, Mr Afolami has to reckon with the cloud that continues to linger over the Tory party in an election campaign that has struggled from the start. The economic secretary to the Treasury acknowledged the campaign has been made more difficult by Conservative chaos at a national level.

But the Tory hopeful insisted voters are also worried about how Labour would handle issues such as housing, the green belt and tax.

“People are not happy at all with Labour’s plans to turn the green belt to the grey belt, and we have a lot of small business owners, people are worried Labour will overtax them and waste people’s money.”

He was quick to turn the conversation to local issues, such as ensuring local infrastructure keeps up with development, saving local pubs and extending the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty to cover parts of the constituency. And Mr Afolami highlighted his own work as the area’s MP pushing for densified urban centres in order to create more housing without paving over Hitchin’s green spaces.

Whether the voters of this newly formed constituency will think his local track record is enough to offset the association with Mr Sunak’s troubled government - currently mired in yet another scandal just days before the election - remains to be seen.

The full list of candidates for Hitchin at the election on 4 July is:

  • Bim Afolami (Conservative)

  • Charles Bunker (Reform UK)

  • Sid Cordle (Christian Peoples Alliance)

  • Will Lavin (Green)

  • Chris Lucas (Liberal Democrat)

  • Alistair Strathern (Labour)