Life after Louise Mensch: Corby selects new MP

Andy McSmith visits the hottest seat in Britain to find a drama where the real star is now off-stage

The main political parties all say they want more “ordinary” people – amateurs – to take up politics. There are 13 candidates who could answer to that description in this month's most fiercely contested parliamentary by-election, but when the votes are counted on Thursday, it is a near certainty that the winner will be the only professional in the line-up.

Andy Sawford, Labour's candidate in Corby, is the son of Phil Sawford, who was Labour MP for neighbouring Kettering for eight years. His first paid job was in the office of Phil Hope, who was Labour MP for Corby until 2010.

His current day job is running a charity that works with local government and the civil service on ways to improve services. He has all the confidence and polish of an MP in waiting, and is so embedded in the Labour establishment that there is a persistent but false rumour that he is Phil Hope's godson.

The Labour team have run a shrewd campaign, focusing on an impending review that covers five NHS hospitals, which potentially threatens the existence of an accident and emergency unit and other parts of Kettering Hospital, the hospital nearest to Corby. In parliament, both David Cameron and Nick Clegg have accused Labour of "scaremongering" but Sawford's teams have the documents to back their case and, crucially, the local media have given it credence.

The old battle cry that the Tories cannot be trusted with the NHS could be enough on its own to secure Sawford's place as Corby's next MP.

That is not the official Labour Party spin. They are saying that it a tight contest. The only opinion poll taken in Corby, commissioned by the billionaire Tory peer Michael Ashcroft, gave Labour a thumping 22-point lead, but a Labour official claimed: "That's just a con to make Labour voters think it's not worth turning out." Labour spinners point out that this is not a homogenous constituency.

There is Corby town, dominated by Labour, but almost half the electorate is in surrounding villages, and they are predominantly Conservative.

The whole constituency is surprisingly prosperous considering that 30 years ago, Corby was known as the town that died. It was built around a vast steelworks which the Thatcher government closed in 1981, driving the local unemployment rate above 21 per cent.

An Asda store now stands where one of Europe's biggest blast furnaces used to be. But recovery has been remarkable: 85 new business opened in the constituency in the last quarter alone; unemployment is below the national average. The Conservative candidate, Christine Emmett, is a latecomer into politics after a long business career, which included 10 years as a buyer for Marks & Spencer.

No Cameroon clone, she came out on the side of the 53 anti-EU Tory rebels who inflicted a Commons defeat on David Cameron last week. She proudly relates that the first time she ever cast a vote was as an 18 year old, in the 1975 referendum on EU membership, when she voted "no".

But she has an uphill task holding on to a seat that Louise Mensch narrowly won in 2010, then gave up to be with her new husband in New York. Ms Emmett loyally claims that "people understand the particular circumstances" of her resignation, but conversations with voters in Corby's shopping centre suggest that they are not impressed at having a by-election foisted on them because of their ex-MP's domestic arrangements.

Margot Parker, the UK Independence Party candidate, claimed: "The people of Corby never thought she represented them anyway, so they just say 'she's gone: but was she ever here?' It's Tory voters who are very put off."

But the Tories have been throwing their troops into the battle, particularly since the ex-whip Michael Fabricant took on responsibility for the campaign. They claim to have had 140 party members out on the streets in last Saturday's rain, and certainly have a more visible presence than the Liberal Democrats. .

With several potential candidates to choose from, a Liberal Democrat panel selected an experienced party activist, Jill Hope, whom they could trust not to attract negative publicity, but who has a full-time job in a bank and is restricted to campaigning in her lunch hour and in the evenings. It is as if the Liberal Democrats feared that too much effort might make things difficult for their Coalition partner.

One unpredictable factor is how well Ukip will do. Ms Parker was the second candidate in the race, after Andy Sawford. For three weeks after Mensch's resignation there were just the two of them fighting it out. In Corby, she pushes the line that immigrants are taking British jobs. In the Tory areas, her theme is withdrawal from the EU.

There was an interlude when it appeared that some of her thunder might be stolen by the eccentric Daily Telegraph journalist James Delingpole, who announced his intention to campaign on an anti-wind farm manifesto but said that he pulled out when he felt other parties had started to take the issue seriously.  The constituency currently has no wind farms but planning permission has been granted for three. The Ashcroft opinion poll put Ukip third. The nightmare scenario for the Conservatives is that they might come second.

But if, as expected, Andy Sawford wins, the only fact that will have got through to most people by the weekend is that Labour has taken a Commons seat off the Tories. For that propaganda gift, Ed Miliband can be grateful to the flighty Louise Mensch.

An Independent Voice: 'There's a lot of voter apathy'

"If ordinary people are to reclaim politics from the party elites, if they are to reinvigorate British democracy, they need to take action" is the clarion call of Democracy 2015, the pressure group launched by The Independent's founding editor, Andreas Whittam Smith.

Their first venture into taking action is to send volunteers into Corby to back an independent candidate, Adam Lotun, a seasoned campaigner for disability rights who suffered a crippling accident at work 20 years ago. Mr Lotun is based in Surrey, but has been visiting Corby for three or four days a week, in an electric-powered wheelchair – but his experience is hardly an encouragement for others to follow his example.

"There is a lot of voter apathy," he said. "Sixty per cent of people are saying they are not interested, and the elections for Police Commissioner are not helping because people do not know who the candidates are. It's going to be a very low turnout, which in one way is a good thing for me because I know some people are going to vote for me.

"I've been campaigning mostly in Corby. I tried going out into the villages. I spent £50 on a return taxi fare to Oundle, but the wheelchair access was diabolical. I got into one hotel; I couldn't get into anywhere else. Most of the buses are not wheelchair accessible. Some taxi drivers have a lot to learn, and even the trains can be a problem."

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