Bellwether seat dispatch: Why Reform is eyeing up election victory in Labour stronghold Barnsley

Data from the 2019 election shows that a swing of just 4.5 percentage points could be needed for Reform to claim Barnsley North
Data from the 2019 election shows that a swing of just 4.5 percentage points could be needed for Reform to claim Barnsley North - Heathcliff O'Malley

Each week, The Telegraph will be taking the temperature in key constituencies around the country whose result could point the way for how the country will vote in July’s election. This week: Barnsley North.

There is an old saying in the former mining town of Barnsley, South Yorkshire: “You could write ‘Labour’ on the side of a pig and people would still vote for it.”

The candidates running here for Sir Keir Starmer’s party in the upcoming general election are slightly more articulate than that porcine alternative, yet the point stands. For more than a century, this has been a Labour-dominated town, so it will take an almighty shift for anything to change that.

But Reform UK – the upstart party headed by Richard Tice in name and Nigel Farage in spirit – are confident of mounting a successful challenge here, perhaps more than anywhere else in the country.

In 2019, Reform UK’s earlier iteration, the Brexit Party, were only around 3,000 votes short of Labour in two of the four Barnsley constituencies, Barnsley Central and Barnsley East. Now the electoral map has now been redrawn and two new constituencies, Barnsley North and Barnsley South, have been carved out to replace those seats. With a clean slate, Reform sees both, but particularly the former, as ripe for the taking amid rising concern among voters about the state of the NHS, levels of immigration and crime.

Why is it a bellwether seat?

Sometimes the 2019 general election feels as if it happened in another century, let alone another decade. But in Barnsley its results continue to provide hope for Reform UK, indicating the party stands a fighting chance at making a first electoral breakthrough here this summer.

The success for the Brexit Party in 2019 means a swing of just 4.5 percentage points could be needed for Reform to claim Barnsley Central, now Barnsley North (currently represented by Dan Jarvis), this time around. The same is true of Barnsley East, now Barnsley South, currently represented by the Labour MP Stephanie Peacock.

The poll, pitched by Boris Johnson as a “Brexit election”, saw this heavily Leave-voting town (almost 70 per cent voted for independence in the 2016 referendum) make a point that set alarm bells ringing for both major parties. Reform UK now hopes to build on that.

This week, under a cloudless sky so blue it almost made Barnsley look bedecked in Reform colours, one might have expected to find the party’s momentum palpable. On the night before The Telegraph visited, Tice himself had hosted a rally here.

Yet in the centre, outside The Glass Works shopping and leisure development, a glitzy new complex that’s regenerated the area particularly for weeks like this – half-term in the sun – voters barely spoke of anything but Labour.

The Glass Works, a new shopping development in Barnsley
The Glass Works, a new shopping development in Barnsley - Heathcliff O'Malley

“I do have some doubts about Keir Starmer, but Dan Jarvis is an excellent MP. Labour are getting very woke and I don’t agree with their immigration policies at all, but the Conservatives haven’t got a chance in Barnsley,” says Phil Lacey, 73, a retired air force veteran and former firefighter who has lived in Barnsley for over 30 years.

On a mobility scooter, he is enjoying his time in the sun: it doesn’t always shine in this part of the country. “Reform haven’t tempted me at all,” he continues. “They’re far too far to the right, and you’ve got the connotations with Nigel Farage, standing with [Donald] Trump, who should be in prison. I voted for Brexit, but Reform aren’t a threat, not in Barnsley. You never hear anybody talking about them.”

Phil Lacey, retired air force veteran: 'The Conservatives haven't got a chance'
'The Conservatives haven't got a chance in Barnsley,' says Phil Lacey, a retired air force veteran - Heathcliff O'Malley

About the area

Barnsley is a former mining town with a rich industrial history, nodded to by The Glass Works name (as well as coal, glass, wire and linen were all once major employers in the area). The town’s coat of arms, visible all over the centre, shows both a coal miner and a glass-blower, above the motto Spectemur agendo, “Let us be judged by our acts”. The local MP, Dan Jarvis, will hope voters take it to heart.

Despite a slightly higher median age than nearby areas, the local population is growing at a faster rate than across Yorkshire. The town also boasted an increased percentage of people in employment at the last census, despite a fall in the wider region.

Development and regeneration has tidied the place up, too. As a local market trader, Neil Smith, 42, put it to The Telegraph: “People now come from other, better known places, in Yorkshire and think Barnsley’s nicer than where they live.”

Neil Smith, market trader, is positive about Barnsley's redevelopment in recent years
Neil Smith, a market trader, is positive about Barnsley's redevelopment in recent years - Heathcliff O'Malley

Overall, local pride seems to be in rude health – despite widespread discontent with Rishi Sunak’s government. Music to the ears of the incumbent.

Who are the candidates?

For the Conservatives… nobody at the moment. Barnsley North is one of more than 100 seats the Tories are scrambling to select a candidate for. Perhaps the lack of urgency is reflective of the fact that Sunak’s party is thought to have next to no chance of winning here, judging on the basis of the last election, where the Tories registered just under 8,000 votes in Barnsley Central.

The Liberal Democrats, whose prospects appear even dimmer, have nonetheless announced a candidate in veteran councillor Penny Baker. Labour, meanwhile, are running with Dan Jarvis, an MP in Barnsley since 2011 and the former Mayor of South Yorkshire, whose majority plummeted from a mammoth 15,546 in 2017 to 3,571 in 2019, but who is now confident that was a one-off.

“We’re out there knocking on doors, meeting people and listening to what they’ve got to say. And the response so far has been really positive,” Jarvis says, when we meet in the lunchtime sun in Glass Works square. A former member of the British Army’s Parachute Regiment, he would love to say the weather is always like this in Barnsley, but integrity prevents him.

“I would contrast that [positivity] with where we were in 2019, which was a tough election around the country but it was hard going here, and we have come lightyears from then. That’s apparent in the conversations I’m having,” Jarvis says.

Dan Jarvis has been an MP in Barnsley since 2011
Dan Jarvis has been an MP in Barnsley since 2011 - Heathcliff O'Malley

He points to the project around us, including the opening of a new library, as evidence that Barnsley is on the up despite a perceived lack of attention from ministers in recent years.

“There is a prospect that we might get a change of government nationally, and people are excited by that. There is a sense that this government hasn’t served Barnsley and places like it at all well.”

Despite this being perhaps Reform UK’s best hope for a scalp, it hasn’t actually named who will be challenging Jarvis in Barnsley North yet.

The party says there’s plenty of time: we are assured that in the coming week, Bob Lomas, a retired Coldstream Guards veteran, will be announced as the candidate for Barnsley North. A stout man with a shock of white hair and steely but affable bearing, he came to meet us outside the town hall.

“There’s just a delay, it’s a new party and they have a rigid control system, which is good, but prevents me from knocking on doors and saying I’m the candidate,” Lomas says. He recently ran unsuccessfully as a councillor in the local elections, and “got quite a lot of votes”, by which he means 457.

Bob Lomas, possible Reform candidate for Barnsley North
Bob Lomas, a retired Coldstream Guards veteran, is set to stand as the Reform candidate for Barnsley North - Heathcliff O'Malley

“I came off the sofa because I was frustrated at shouting at the television when the politicians were talking, because they don’t seem to talk my language. Everybody I speak to, they want to see change.

“People are more self-opinionated and they want more from the government. We’re run by lawyers and accountants. There’s nobody at my working-class level.”

Jarvis, Lomas concedes, “is a nice guy, I can’t say anything wrong about Dan Jarvis, but he doesn’t come from here.”

He cites the “write Labour on a pig” idiom. “That’s going … They don’t want Labour, it’s old crud again. They’d like a fresh party, [with] fresh ideas.”

View from the high street

Asked whether she recognised the name “Bob Lomas”, retiree Catherine Lacey, 71, sitting on a bench in Barnsley market, screwed up her face. “No, who’s that? I don’t watch the news. I think Barnsley will probably stay Labour; I didn’t know Reform was doing its best to get in. I don’t think Barnsley people know enough about them. I’m really interested in politics and I didn’t know.”

Catherine Lacey, 71, believes Barnsley will remain Labour
Catherine Lacey, 71, believes Barnsley will remain Labour - Heathcliff O'Malley

Traipsing around the town all day, we didn’t find a single Reform voter, aside from one man who shouted the party’s name from across the square, then ran away.

Smith, the market trader, isn’t exactly enthusiastic about the two party system. “In this country it’s either going to be Conservative or Labour, but you’re just not convinced there’s a massive difference between their policies these days. Labour will get in, but is there going to be a massive change?” he says.

Nearby, there is brief commotion as the doors of the town hall open. A beaming bride and groom and backwards-walking photographer emerge. It’s a healthy reminder that outside of politics, the real stuff of life is carrying on.

Being informed he lives and works in Reform’s number one target seat brings a look of astonishment from Smith. “You’re telling me something I didn’t know. Now, you see big Labour events, and other parties, but either I’m blind or not looking in the right places, because I’ve not seen anything for [Reform].”

Charlotte, 37, a solicitor wandering up the cobbled streets of the Victorian arcade on her lunch break, has similar misgivings about Labour and the Conservatives and remains undecided about who will win her vote.

“Names have changed but the principles are still there. They usually dance the same way,” she says.

Charlotte, 37, is still unsure who she will vote for in the next election
Charlotte, 37, says she is unsure who will get her vote in the general election - Heathcliff O'Malley

“[I] don’t dismiss Reform out of hand, it’s just that the two parties are a known entity … the smaller parties aren’t off my radar completely, but it’s tactical isn’t it? I think a lot of people do tactically vote.”

What are the burning local issues?

“We were a tired town before this redevelopment, and the town centre is now the best I’ve known it in my lifetime,” Smith says. He wants to see more of that, including more facilities for teens to help quell antisocial behaviour. “We’re heading in the right direction, but we can’t get our feet off the gas. We’ve got to keep going.”

There is a general satisfaction with the makeover of Barnsley as a town. “They’ve done an absolutely brilliant job with the work and the infrastructure, it’s lovely to see little shops popping up, but nationally that’s not the same, is it?” Charlotte says.

Thinking on that scale, she says the NHS, jobs and immigration, “which is huge for people” are the key areas she’s interested in.

Compared to many other Red Wall seats, it might not seem to be a town overly affected by high levels of migration. But frustrations are running high over the issue nonetheless, magnified by government spending on housing migrants in hotels such as in nearby Wath-upon-Dearn, where in 2022 a plan by ministers to house 130 asylum seekers in a Holiday Inn enraged some locals.

“The reason why this town voted to leave [the EU] was immigration,” says Smith.

“However, I think if they [Leave voters] could have looked into a crystal ball and seen how things are now with immigration, I don’t think a lot of them would have voted to leave. I think they can all agree that it’s actually 10 times worse now than it was back [in 2016].”

Lomas points out that housing migrants costed the Home Office “eight million pounds a day [last year], which is eight million pounds too much. We could be mending the roads, we could be looking after our people.”

The figure comes from a Home Office report in September 2023. The use of hotels has increased over the last few years as the number of people entering the UK illegally or claiming asylum has hit record levels.

It is the Conservative’s clear failings to address the issue, especially with regards to the small boats crisis in the English channel, which Reform are hoping to capitalise on in Barnsley, just as they have in other parts of the country.

That Sunak’s party has put such a focus on immigration has been viewed by many pundits as a political misstep which only serves to highlight its own shortcomings in areas such as this.

Reform has also put considerable focus on the NHS, which always rides high on agendas at election time, but the pressures on our health service at present mean it could easily dominate this one. Barnsley is no different from every other town up and down the country in having long waiting lists.

There is currently a backlog of more than 7.5 million treatments on the NHS. By being “bold” with radical changes to the system in the first 100 days, Reform believes it can get to “zero” waiting lists within two years.

But Charlotte’s reflections reveal the size of the task Reform has if it wants to gain an electoral foothold here and paint the town sky blue. Locally, at least in the urban heart of the constituency, there is a general satisfaction that things are going well. Nationally, they’d like change. The Labour Party will be very happy with that picture.

As for the Conservatives? Phil Lacey, on his mobility scooter, surely put it best: “It won’t ever be a big enough swing to move away from Labour, not in Barnsley. The Tories could say, ‘Right, we’ll give everybody £50,000 who used to live in an industrial area.’ They still wouldn’t vote for them.”