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Senior Labour MPs Told To Step Back From Tiverton By-Election Campaign To Make Way For Lib Dems

Labour frontbenchers are understood to have been told not to go and campaign in Honiton and Tiverton (Alamy)

4 min read

Labour has instructed frontbenchers not to travel to campaign for the forthcoming Tiverton & Honiton by-election in an apparent attempt to give the Lib Dems a better chance of victory over the Tories.

A by-election is due in the constituency next month following the resignation of former Conservative MP Neil Parish, who stood down last month after admitting to watching pornography in the House of Commons. 

The seat will be a key target for the Lib Dems, who made significant gains from the Tories in the region in May's local elections, notably taking nearby Somerset council

Labour is now is understood to be scaling back its campaign in Devon in favour of focusing efforts on winning back the northern seat of Wakefield, which will also hold a by-election next month triggered by the resignation of former Conservative MP Imran Ahmad Khan following his conviction for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy last month.

The vote in both constituencies is expected on June 23, after the writ was moved by the government on Tuesday to hold by-elections on the same day.

A member of Labour’s frontbench team confirmed to PoliticsHome that they have been told by senior party figures that they are “soft pedalling” the race in Tiverton & Honiton. 

A Labour spokesperson did not deny the tactic, but insisted they would put forward candidates to “fight for every vote” in both constituencies.

At a meeting of the Parliamentary party (PLP) earlier this week Labour leader Keir Starmer's comments remained focussed on Wakefield, according to a Labour MP who was present. 

They said the rural seat in Tiverton & Honiton is “hardly our heartlands” and backed focusing campaign resources elsewhere. The sentiment was echoed by another Labour insider who spoke to PoliticsHome.

Starmer told MPs that winning back Wakefield is “going to be an enormous test for us”, and asked the entire PLP to repeatedly visit the seat “to ensure we give Wakefield an MP it can be proud of again”.

In Tiverton & Honiton, the Lib Dems are positioning themselves as “the main challengers to the Conservatives”, despite having finished third behind Labour when the seat was last contested at the 2019 general election. Traditionally, England's South West has been a key Lib Dem heartland. 

The Tories consider this to be further evidence of a “pact” between Labour and the Lib Dems, after accusations of such a strategy by Tory party chair Oliver Dowden ahead of the local elections earlier this month.

Both Labour and Lib Dem leaders have vehemently denied that there is any such agreement between the two parties. 

“Everybody knows there is no pact,” Starmer told Sky News last month. 

Davey also told the broadcaster there is "no pact now" in the run-up to the May elections.

"There’s not going to be a pact in the future,” he added. 

Responding to renewed interest in a possible Labour-Lib Dem pact at the forthcoming by-elections, Davey told PoliticsHome that "political parties always put resources where they can win”. 

A Labour Party spokesperson said: "These by-elections are a chance for voters to send the Conservative Government a message on their failure to tackle the cost of living crisis.

“Labour is putting forward excellent candidates who will work hard and fight for every vote in Wakefield and in Tiverton and Honiton.”

But a Conservative party source said Labour focusing on Wakefield over Tiverton was “clear evidence that there is a pact”.

“Starmer won’t bother to turn up either,” they added. 

There were similar suggestions after the North Shropshire by-election last December, where despite having finished second at the 2019 general election, Labour slipped back to third when the Liberal Democrats won the seat from the Tories with a huge vote swing.

At the time Labour MP Yasmin Qureshi effectively acknowledged her party had deliberately left the field clear and reduced the risk of squeezing the progressive or anti-Tory vote.

“Well, it’s realistic,” the shadow Foreign Office minister told Times Radio. “Let’s face it, Labour are never going to win North Shropshire. The Lib Dems do have an opportunity to do so.”

Some Labour MPs have expressed disquiet over ceding ground to another party and failing to fight hard in every seat, but a party insider highlights how neither North Shropshire or Tiverton & Honiton would be target seats at a general election, having been held by the Tories for decades.

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