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The Labour party represented Wakefield since 1931 until the Tories took the seat in the 2019 general election. (Photo: Ian Forsyth via Getty Images)
This week, voters in Wakefield will go to the polls in yet another by-election triggered by political scandal.
Imran Ahmad Khan, who became the first Tory to represent the city in nearly 90 years when he was elected in 2019, was forced to quit after he was sentenced to 18 months in prison for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy in 2008.
The episode has shocked, angered and appalled residents. After the upheaval of Brexit and the ongoing turmoil in Westminster caused by Boris Johnson’s leadership, they are crying out for some stability.
It’s no surprise, then, that Labour is pitching this by-election as a “fresh start” for Wakefield, despite previously being the party of choice here for decades.
The party needs to overturn a Tory majority of 3,358 votes to take the seat back.
Doing so would give it enough ammunition to argue that Johnson’s winning streak is over and that Labour is rebuilding the fabled Red Wall of traditional seats that turned blue at the last election.
Indeed, recent polls have put Labour as many as 20 points ahead of the Conservatives in the June 23 contest.
But for all the hype around the possibility of a Labour landslide, some believe it will be no walk in the park and that the poll lead has been exaggerated. Internal polling seen by the Sunday Times puts Labour just eight points in front.
“People are appalled by Imran Khan and the response on the door is very positive for Labour,” one senior Labour activist tells HuffPost UK.
“But the problem is that a lot of the Tory vote is not coming over to us and may not come out at all.
“I think it could be quite tight.”
Observers would be forgiven for thinking that the circumstances surrounding Khan’s exit — not to mention a troubled Tory campaign whose candidate took to invoking Harold Shipman in a bizarre pitch to voters — should mean Labour is steamrollering ahead.
Conservative candidate for Wakefield Nadeem Ahmed. (Photo: Ian Forsyth via Getty Images)
But one aspect that appears to be curbing voters’ enthusiasm is the leadership of Keir Starmer, who in the past week has resorted to telling members of his own shadow cabinet not to brief the press that he is “boring”.
“We are getting fewer negative reactions on the doorstep than in 2019,” the activist continues, “but the main question we hear is ‘What does Keir Starmer stand for?’ Voters think he is boring and dull.”
Labour’s campaign in Wakefield got off to a rocky start after a row in the candidate selection process threw up headlines reminiscent of the days of division under Jeremy Corbyn.
Local activists accused the central party of organising a stitch-up by blocking council’s deputy leader Jack Hemingway’s candidacy over his past support for Starmer’s left-wing predecessor.
Instead, Simon Lightwood — who was not born in Wakefield but has lived in the city for 10 years — was chosen as the Labour candidate, prompting the executive of the local party to stage a campaign strike, which some fear will only play into the hands of the Tories.
Another unpredictable factor is the candidacy of Akef Akbar, a former Tory councillor who now sits as an independent on Wakefield council.
“Akbar is dynamic, he’s a bit divisive but he’s also very visible,” the Labour activist says. “We don’t know how much of a drain he will be on our vote or whether he will take vote from the Tories,”
Scott, a local voter in his 50s, has always voted Labour but this year will opt for Akbar.
“I think it’s going to be neck between the main parties,” he says. “Neither party is serving Wakefield and they never have done.”
Asked what the main issues are in Wakefield, Scott cites a lack of investment and a failing town centre.
“You’ve got shops opening and closing because the rents are so high and the shops can’t afford it,” he says.
“Since we’ve got one of the major Debenhams leaving, that’s created a drain on the economy in Wakefield.
“There’s no influx of money coming into this county, they all seem to be going to the major cities — even though we are a city,” he adds.
“Where we are now used to be the hub. Now it’s dying.”
His mother, Rosemary, has also typically voted Labour but was one of the thousands in this city to vote Conservative for the first time in 2019 over her support for Brexit.
But now she finds herself disillusioned with the Tories and does not believe Brexit has delivered.
“I didn’t realise how complicated it was all going to be,” she says.
“I’m not keen on Keir Starmer but I will be voting Labour.”
Asked to elaborate, she says: “He just needs to lighten up. He’s always got that lawyer persona on. He’s so stuffy.”
Keir Starmer has told supporters that a victory in Wakefield “could be the birthplace of the next Labour government”. (Photo: Ian Forsyth via Getty Images)
“I don’t think Labour is doing as well as it could be, for obvious reasons,” one local solicitor says when approached for his views on the by-election.
“I think Keir Starmer presents himself all right but he doesn’t seem to hit home with the non-Labour voters.
“I think it’s still Brexit, ” he expands. “It still remains an anti-European hotspot.
“I do think Labour will win, but they will have a reduced majority. If they had Jack Hemingway from the council I’d have thought they’d be doing slightly better.
“It’s just typical Labour — you’re just about to win a seat and then you find a way to scupper it.”
Unsurprisingly, Starmer doesn’t get a glowing endorsement from Karen Slocombe, a Conservative voter who has kept the faith with Johnson despite partygate,
“I’m disappointed because we got in and it’s not meant to be,” she explains. “They’re all going back to Labour now.
“I don’t mind Boris. Personally — and I don’t care what anybody has said —everybody did something in lockdown that they shouldn’t have done.
“It’s pot calling kettle – I think everybody’s quick to judge but they don’t look at their own situation and think what they did over the lockdown.
“Other people are only opinionated because he’s the leader and they’re not thinking about what they’d done.”
But shouldn’t he be held to a higher standard, as prime minister?
“Keir Starmer is just as bad,” she says, referring to the so-called Beergate saga that could result in the leader stepping down if he receives a fine from Durham police.
“He isn’t going to make a better leader than Boris.
“Boris is human like the rest of us. I think he probably might have gone a bit far but I’d accept it and move on.
“And that’s the thing about Boris — at least he’s a trier.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.