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‘Anyone but them’: True-blue Tory voters see red to hand Labour historic Selby by-election

New Labour MP vows ‘change’ as voters vent frustration at Boris Johnson ally he replaces

Andy Gregory
In Selby
Friday 21 July 2023 15:37 BST
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Tory minister mocks 25-year-old Keir Mathers as Labour’s ‘Inbetweeners’ MP

Labour has stomped to its largest ever by-election win in Selby and Ainsty, with the 23-point swing celebrated by Sir Keir Starmer’s party rivalling heights not seen since the run-up to 1997’s landslide.

But voters in the Yorkshire market town were not alone in questioning whether the dramatic reversal of the Conservatives’ 20,000-strong majority was more representative of exasperation with the Tories than enthusiasm for Labour’s vision.

Despite the jubilant cheers emanating from its campaign office on Selby’s high street in the small hours of Friday, Labour’s simultaneous failure to clinch Boris Johnson’s former Uxbridge and South Ruislip seat – and a similarly huge Lib Dem victory in Somerset – will only serve to compound such concerns.

Labour’s newest MP, Keir Mather (PA)

It was a question addressed by Labour’s newest MP, Keir Mather, almost immediately after the 25-year-old discovered he would become the “Baby of the House” of Commons, replacing 56-year-old Nigel Adams, who triggered the by-election last month after failing to make Mr Johnson’s honour’s list.

Speaking to reporters after a victory speech in which he claimed to “have rewritten the rules on where Labour can win”, parliament’s youngest MP added: “I make no bones about it, I think local residents were extremely frustrated at the way the Conservative MP stepped down.

“But they only voted Labour to the extent that they did because they knew we had a plan that would actually deliver on their concerns.”

That certainty in Labour’s current vision, however, was somewhat less clear among voters spoken to by The Independent on Friday – and paled in comparison with the clarity of their disdain for Mr Adams and the Conservatives.

What was also apparent was a strong sense that the by-election’s proximity to the next general election could allow some true-blue voters to try red on for size – with the safety net of a potential returns policy in the 12 months to come.

Gary Robson suggested both Labour and the Tories could end up with a ‘bloody nose' (Andy Gregory/The Independent)

Standing with his dog Cookie outside the polling station at Selby Civic Centre, retiree Gary Robson said: “You can vote somebody new in this time and in 12 months time can vote them out if they don’t do what you want them to do. So it’s a bloody nose for both lots, then.”

Asked about the big issues in this ballot, he cited Mr Adams’s departure and the Tories’ failure to crack down on cross-Channel migration, adding: “I’m sick of the fact that umpteen prime ministers – all for the Conservatives – have said they were going to do this, that, the other, and did none of it.”

“[Adams] did nothing for Selby – nothing,” the 70-year-old said. “I get the impression that he was in it for his own wellbeing and when he didn’t get an honour in the old PM’s list, he went.”

(PA)

Although the turnout of less than 45 per cent – compared with 72 per cent in 2019’s general election – was lower than perhaps expected, large numbers of former Tory voters still cast ballots for Labour. But for some, Sir Keir’s party felt merely their only option to avoid further Tory rule.

Claire, a 36-year-old business manager, said that as a consistent Tory voter it had been “a bit of a surprise” to mark her ballot for Labour instead, who she described as “the best of a bad choice”.

While she said it made “not a sausage” of difference that Sir Keir, Angela Rayner and Rachel Reeves all made appearances in Selby, Claire described her “Conservative through and through” husband as also saying: “I feel like I should give this guy [Mather] a chance, because where are the Conservative Party?”

Sir Keir Starmer campaigned with Keir Mather in Selby last month (Danny Lawson/PA Wire)

Speaking at the Cricketers Arms pub as voting came to a close, Dave, a railway worker, said he was “anyone but the Tories”. The 37-year-old said he had “never seen” Mr Adams, who had been Selby and Ainsty’s MP since the constituency was created in 2010.

“I don’t think tonight’s result matters massively, because if Labour win tonight and there’s not a lot of changes in this next year, then people maybe get swayed back to the Tories,” he said.

“He’s going down in my estimation, is Starmer. He’s a Tory-lite, isn’t he basically. They need to bring in proportional representation.”

Sitting just a few hundred feet away at the Bay Horse pub, Terry Scott – a 73-year-old former restauranteur and engineer, who voted Tory in 2019 and 2015 – offered similar sentiments.

“I’ve no confidence in Labour but it’s a matter of, ‘if I don’t vote, we might get these shower of idiots in again’,” he said.

While he will “definitely” vote for Sir Keir’s party at the general election, he said: “They’re not going to get a landslide. They might scrape in. How anybody can vote for this shower of lunatics we’ve had in I don’t know, but people still will. Labour’s not offering that much, they’ve no real policies. I just don’t know what they’re thinking of.”

Mr Scott’s story was one echoed on doorsteps across the constituency in recent weeks, the by-election’s youngest candidate told The Independent at the vote count at Selby Leisure Centre.

Tyler Wilson-Kerr, a 24-year-old parish councillor and aerospace engineer standing on a campaign to extend the opening hours of Selby War Memorial Hospital, said “the strength of feeling against the Conservatives has been massive”, especially in rural villages known for their typically staunch Tory support.

Tyler Wilson-Kerr said Starmer is ‘winning by default’ (Andy Gregory/The Independent)

“That’s not a vote of confidence for Starmer’s clique and the way he’s taking the party – it’s a vote against the Conservatives, he’s sort of winning by default,” he added.

Predicting it will either be “very close or an absolute majority” for Labour at the next election, he continued: “The difference with 1997 is that the party had a clear vision, they had a direction, people understood what they stood for – it wasn’t just ‘we’re not the Tories’.”

While there is some relief for Mr Sunak in avoiding the first triple by-election defeat since Harold Wilson’s government, Lib Dem candidate Matt Walker claimed the results marked “the demise of the Conservatives as we know [them].

“This is a terrible day for Sunak,” said Mr Walker, who came sixth out of 13 candidates in Selby. “There’s about 140 Conservative MPs with less of a majority than [Mr Adams] had, so that’s huge potential for us and Labour to overturn that.”

But despite conceding that Selby’s vote was “obviously very disappointing”, Andrew Jones – the Tory MP in neighbouring Harrogate and Knaresborough, a seat among those being targeted by the Lib Dems  –urged caution on extrapolating the results.

“If you add the three by-elections together, the Conervative vote has been slightly larger than the Labour vote,” Mr Jones told The Independent minutes after the result in Selby was announced. “That is slightly against expectations and certainly does not reflect a 15 per cent lead in national opinion polls.”

The Liberal Democrats are celebrating a huge win in Somerset, toppling the Tory safe seat of Somerton and Frome (PA)

Thursday’s results indicate Labour’s support is “more soft than the opinion polls suggest, it’s more easily deflected”, he said, pointing to Uxbridge, where anger over the Ultra Low Emissions Zone expansion was cited by both sides as a reason for Labour’s failure to overturn Mr Johnson’s 7,000 majority.

“Labour were odds-on to win it, they had plenty visits from the most senior people in their party, and they haven’t done it, they haven’t got it over the line. That suggests that support for Labour was less significant than being grumpy and protesting about the ULEZ, said the Tory MP.

His observations were echoed on the airwaves shortly afterwards by polling guru Professor Sir John Curtice, who told BBC Radio 4 that, while “the Conservatives remain in deep electoral trouble”, Labour must ask why its hold on the electorate is “apparently so weak”.

For now, however, Labour’s newest MP has several months to make his mark in Selby.

While he said his first priority would be setting up financial support centres to help constituents with issues including mortgage payments and energy bills, Mr Mather said in his victory address: “The people of Selby and Ainsty have sent a clear message.

“For too long, Conservatives up here and in Westminster have failed us, and today that changes.”

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