New battle of Wakefield

By-election seen to be crucial to PM’s survival

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There is no visible red wall in Wakefield but every day the Yorkshire city is described as a “red wall seat”, one of numerous once impregnable fortresses symbolising Labour Party strength in the North.

The emblematic walls were smashed down by troops commanded by Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson at the general election of 2019. Anyone looking for the actual ruins of a defensive wall in the city will inevitably find themselves at Sandal Castle, which looms over the southern outskirts and was the location of the Battle of Wakefield in 1460, a major engagement during the Wars of the Roses between the House of York and House of Lancaster.

It is now best remembered for supplying a scene in one of Shakespeare’s plays, Henry VI, Part 3, and for leaving the then-heir to the throne, Richard Plantagenet, dead on the battlefield.

Shakespearian tragedy

Today, another Battle of Wakefield is being fought, and it may well contribute a scene to the modern-day Shakespearian tragedy currently being enacted at Westminster, an attempt to topple the prime minister that some commentators have likened to the plot of Julius Caesar.

Although no one believes that the Partygate misdemeanours of red wall demolisher Johnson will see him come to anything like the same sticky end as Richard Plantagenet, it is predicted that failure to win the by-elections taking place in Wakefield and also the Devon seat of Tiverton and Honiton on 23 June will hasten his removal from 10 Downing Street.

The Wakefield poll was triggered by the resignation of Conservative MP Imran Ahmad Khan following his conviction for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy in 2008. Khan had won the Wakefield seat in 2019 despite it being held by Labour at every general election for almost 90 years. His majority was 3,358.

Unlike some red wall seats, the Tory victory in Wakefield wasn’t so remarkable given that Labour’s majority had plummeted from 14,600 in 1997 to 2,176 in 2017. This time, however, opinion polls are suggesting it will be a comfortable win for Labour, with one poll in the constituency giving the party a 23 point lead over the Conservatives.

Big Issue North’s own decidedly limited vox pop of Wakefield voters produced mixed results, and where better to begin testing opinion than beneath the ruined sandstone walls of Sandal Castle, scene of the last Battle of Wakefield?

‘Best comedian’

Perhaps significantly, no one mentioned a single local issue when asked what they would be voting for in the by-election. Neil Barnes said he was surprised that Wakefield went Conservative in 2019, but not unpleasantly surprised since he had voted for Brexit and believed that making its own decisions was the correct way forward for the country.

He added: “I think this election is going to be dominated by the personality of the prime minister rather than issues that are specific to Wakefield. People are looking at the bigger picture.”

Down in the city centre, one of the best known characters in Wakefield, Allan Jones, who has run a gift stall and chestnut stand opposite the cathedral for 40 years, certainly had strong views on the prime minister’s personality.

“Everybody wants him out but I think he’s a likeable fellow. He did well in the pandemic and Brexit, and I think he’ll stay put because he’s as thick skinned as that cathedral wall over there.

“With that silly haircut of his he’s the best comedian I’ve seen since I saw Bernard Manning in Wakefield 35 years ago. I know what they say about them parties but there’s more important things in the world to worry about than what he did 18 months ago.”

Others were less forgiving. “He’s laughing at us with those parties,” said one man who preferred not to be named. “I mean, it’s just one rule for bigwigs like him and another rule for the average Joe in the street like me.”

Attract flies

A woman, also declining to be named, raised the cost of living crisis as the most important issue, and linked it to a current indefinite strike over a pay claim by Arriva bus drivers in West and South Yorkshire. The strike may play badly for Labour, and in the tradition of the trade union movement supplying the party with a bowl of ointment with which to attract flies the Rail and Maritime Union announced a three-day national rail strike including a complete stoppage on 23 June, the day voters go to the polls in Wakefield.

The woman added: “I know the wife of one of the drivers at Wakefield depot, and she says he works 60 hours a week yet they have to go to a food bank for the family to survive. That shouldn’t be happening.”

The poverty problem in Wakefield is likely to feature more prominently as the campaign progresses. Before the Covid pandemic there were 18 long-established food banks in the city, but now there are at least 30. At one of the biggest, St Catherine’s Church Centre on Doncaster Road, manager Lisa Grant said that demand was increasing.

“Our concern is that it used to be an emergency food provision to help, for example, people who had an unexpected bill to pay, but now we’re seeing more and more people who need support for much longer,” she said. “Many are families where one or both of the parents are actually working but just not managing to make ends meet.”

There are 15 candidates altogether in the by-election, but past results suggest it will be a two-sided battle between the Conservative candidate Nadeem Ahmed, a local councillor, and Labour’s Simon Lightwood, head of communications for Calderdale and Huddersfield NHS Foundation Trust.

Families’ ‘inner pain’

Big Issue North joined Lightwood as he campaigned in Wakefield’s sprawling Eastmoor housing estate. An affable Geordie with an explosive laugh, he moved to Wakefield in his late teens. On doorsteps Lightwood was stressing a five-point plan for Wakefield: attracting investment and jobs, restoring bus routes and capping fares at £2, fighting to save a walk-in health centre threatened with closure, increasing police levels to tackle antisocial behaviour, and scrapping the Conservatives’ national insurance rise.

People were still raising the issue of Partygate, he said. “Of course there’s the cost of living crisis for people, and they want help with that, but there’s also that deep hurt, the inner pain left in families who lost loved ones in the pandemic and who I see crying on the doorstep as they tell me of the anger they feel towards Johnson for completely ignoring the rules when they themselves had obeyed them and lost the opportunity to say goodbye.”

Ahmed did not respond to requests for an interview. However, on his Facebook page he indicated that he is campaigning on a number of local issues, including tackling antisocial behaviour, improving bus services and providing free parking.

He said there had been long been “chronic under-investment” in Wakefield but pointed to £25 million given to the city in the last 12 months for regeneration projects under the government’s Towns Fund.

One of the most energetic campaigns in the by-election is being run by 30-year-old independent candidate Akef Akbar, a local solicitor, whose posters are well distributed. Until March he was a Conservative member of Wakefield Council but resigned from the party after publicly describing the prime minister as “an idiot”.

It remains to be seen if Wakefield voters agree with him.

Wakefield by-election: runners and riders

Candidates: Nadeem Ahmed, Conservative Party; Akef Akbar, Independent; Paul Bickerdike, Christian Peoples Alliance; Mick Dodgson, Freedom Alliance. Real People. Real Alternative; Sir Archibald Stanton Earl ‘Eaton, The Official Monster Raving Loony Party; Jayda Fransen, Independent; Jordan James Gaskell, UK Independence Party; David John Rowntree Herdson, Yorkshire Party; Therese Hirst, English Democrats; Christopher Richard Jones, Northern Independence Party; Simon Robert Lightwood, Labour Party; Jamie Luke Needle, Liberal Democrats; Ashley Theo Blue Routh, Green Party; Ashlea Simon, Britain First; Chris Walsh, Reform UK

General election result in 2019: Iran Ahmad Khan, Con, 21,283; Mary Creagh, Lab, 17,925; Peter Wiltshire, Brexit, 2,725; Jamie Needle, LibDem, 1,772; Ryan Kett, Yorks Party, 868; Stephen Whyte, Ind., 454.

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