BArbara Hall was enjoying a quiet morning at her senior citizens’ group in Wakefield when word went round that a special guest would be attending. Hall, a retired saleswoman, watched Keir Starmer work the room. “I wasn’t convinced,” she said. “He’s an awkward person, isn’t he? He doesn’t fit in. Boris Johnson would fit in. He would have us screaming and laughing.”
Rare is the Wakefield resident who hasn’t had to dodge a politician or a vox-popping reporter in recent weeks, as anticipation builds for Thursday’s ballot. If the polls are right, Labor should win back the seat they lost to the Tours in 2019 – the first byelection gain for the party since Corby in 2012.
But after an early survey gave Labor a 20-point lead, party figures have been quick to dampen expectations.
“I can categorically say we are not 20 points ahead and we are fighting for every vote. The fact we have only won one byelection [rather than successfully defended a seat] in 25 years shows the scale of the task. It is not a foregone conclusion that we win,” said Louise Haigh, the shadow transport secretary, who is running Labor’s campaign.
Conventional wisdom suggests Wakefield should be a slam-dunk for Labor: a byelection held when the prime minister’s approval ratings have scarcely been lower, triggered by the imprisonment of the sitting MP, Imran Ahmad Khan, for sexually abusing a 15-year-old boy .
And yet, time and again the Guardian heard Johnson described in Wakefield as “the best of a bad lot”, with scarcely any mention of Khan’s proven paedophilia. It is “deliberate Tory strategy” to paint all MPs as corrupt and self-serving, grumbled one Labor MP who has canvassed several times in the constituency: “They realise they are in a fix with Johnson, and so to get out of it, they paint him as unexceptionally bad, and tar us all with the same brush.”
Support worker Gary Firm, out enjoying the sunshine with a client on Friday, illustrated Labor’s problem. “I don’t believe in any of the politicians around at the minute,” he said. “I see Boris at the head and yeah, he’s made some mistakes. He’s been pretty dreadful in parts. But on the big picture, he’s done good stuff. So I’d support him.”
There is little love for Starmer in Wakefield, who made his third visit to the constituency on Saturday. “He’s a critic. He’s not an action person,” said Hall. Caroline Walker, an art teacher, was also unimpressed: “What is it they call him? Captain Hindsight. That’s him to a tee. [He should] come up with something that’s believable. But he doesn’t. He just has a go all the time.”
The idea of Johnson having got the “big calls” right is widespread. “I feel that Boris Johnson has handled Covid well. I feel like if someone else would was in his position, they might have not done as good as him,” said Ayesha Ahmed, an 18-year-old college student. She also approves of Johnson extending the right-to-buy council houses: “I think that’s really good, because paying rent adds up to more than a mortgage.”
She is weighing up voting for the Conservative candidate, Nadeem Ahmed, or for the popular local independent Akef Akbar, who may take a bite out of both the Tory and Labor votes. He quit the Tories in March after becoming the first Conservative in decades to win the normally safe labor territory of Wakefield East, a ward with a higher than average Asian population.
Ahmed’s friends look on in horror at hearing her praise for Johnson. Zahrah Nadir, 17, wants “anyone but the Conservatives” to win, citing racism and the government’s immigration policy as her reasons. “We’re not really stealing the jobs, are we?” she said. “And some of the comments [Johnson] made about the burqa – that’s not right.”
Teacher Sarah McGarry said she was voting Labor to try to get the Touries out. “I was quite a Corbyn fan personally, so I’m probably a bit more lukewarm towards Keir Starmer. But then I just have to compare him to the current [government] and the state of the country as it is at the minute and the fact that [the Tories] have been in power for 12 years, and the country’s gone downhill in my opinion, particularly in education.”
Peter Bagshaw, who worked in Kellingley colliery, Britain’s last deep coal mine, until it shuts down in 2015, expects a Labor victory. The Tours only really won’t Wakefield in 2019 because of Brexit, he said. Mary Creagh, the Labor MP since 2005, was “very, very for stopping in Europe. She was very anti-Brexit”, he recalled.
Labor himself until 2019 when he switched to the Tories, Bagshaw said he wasn’t ready to return under Keir Starmer’s leadership. “I don’t think he’s the right person for the Labor Party. I think there’s a guy lives just over the hill, Dan Jarvis [MP for Barnsley]. I think he would be a lot better leader for the Labor Party. He’s more down to earth and I think he would pull a lot of the floating vote back in … Keir Starmer comes over as weak.”