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Despondency Looms Over Selby and Ainsty Ahead Of By-Election

Selby town centre (Alamy)

8 min read

Labour and the Conservative party may have found a tougher opponent than one another as they prepare to fight a by-election in Selby and Ainsty this week: entrenched despondency among an electorate that's tired of Westminster drama and the challenges posed by the cost of living crisis.

Selby local Rachel Young paused while walking around the shops to watch the candidates for Thursday's poll take part in a televised hustings for the BBC in the town centre last week.

She told PoliticsHome that she still has not decided who to vote for, but thinks that many people she knows will simply not bother at all. 

“I’ve been told I’m a floating voter – I’ve been umm-ing and ahh-ing on what to vote for and who to vote for," Young explained. 

 “I’ve got a few ideas but I’m not 100 per cent – I think it’s hard and a lot of people around here are feeling the same.” 

“I’ve got friends that say they’re not going to vote, and I think to myself that everybody needs to vote even if they don’t know who to vote for – just to put somebody down."

The by-election in Selby and Ainsty was triggered by the resignaton of former Conservative MP Nigel Adams. A staunch Boris Johnson ally, Adams quit the seat in an act of solidarity with the former prime minister who had resigned in protest over a Privileges Committee's report that concluded he had misled Parliament over events held in Downing Street over lockdown. 

It is one of three votes being held this Thursday, all in seats formerly held by Conservatives, and presenting a major test for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in trying to keep them in his party's control. While Labour will look to take Johnson’s former Uxbridge and South Ruislip seat in suburban London, Ed Davey’s Liberal Democrats are confident of a victory in Somerton and Frome, where David Warburton vacated the seat following drug abuse and allegations of harassment, which he denies. 

With a majority of more than 20,000, Selby should be an easy win for the Tories. It has been held by a Conservative MP since its creation in 2010, and is one of a number of seats in North Yorkshire that have previously been assumed to be ultra-safe blue heartlands, alongside Sunak's own constituence in neighbouring Richmond. 

However, polling suggests that even this hefty majority could now be overturned by 25-year-old Labour candidate Keir Mather. Earlier this month a poll of more than 500 people in the constituency by JL Partners for The Yorkshire Post indicated that Labour have a more than 10 point lead over the Conservatives.

Candidates taking part in a hustings for the BBC
Selby and Ainsty by-election candidates taking part in a hustings for the BBC

Labour campaigners say that people feeling "left-behind" is one of the strongest sentiments they are finding on the doorstep in North Yorkshire. 

Sandwiched between the two larger cities of Leeds and York, the towns of Selby and Tadcaster in the constituency are prime commuter belts, while more rural farming villages make up most of the rest of the voter base. 

Labour campaigners feel they're being given a fresh chance with voters who had previously turned away from them because people feel worse off and "left behind". They say that voters appear more willing to listen to the party and give them a chance. Volunteers knocking on doors for Labour noted a growing sense that the area has suffered decline in recent years and that local services are harder to access.

Labour has pitched Mather as a “fresh start” for the constituency, and has plastered his five pledges for the area – mirroring Sunak's own faltering promises for the nation – across the front of the high street shop Labour is using as a campaign base. These include: supporting people hit by the cost of living crisis, tackling antisocial behaviour and rural crime, improving the local NHS, bolstering flood defence and sewage issues, and improving public transport.

Elsewhere in Selby town centre there are very few banners or campaign boards for any party. 

Bradford South MP Judith Cummins, who is running the campaign for Labour told PoliticsHome that “the number one issue is the economy and the cost of living”. Simon Lightwood, shadow transport minister and MP for nearby Wakefield, believes that the electorate feels “really let down” by the government and their former MP. 

“I think people are reflecting on whether they’re better off after 13 years of a Tory government, 13 years of a Tory MP here in Selby and Ainsty, and I think in the majority of cases when they’re asked that question it’s ‘no, I don’t feel better off, I feel worse off'.” 

Claire Holmes, the Conservative candidate, expressed cautious optimism about her chances of retaining the seat for her party. “All you can do is just keep working, keep talking to people and hope that they get to know you and what you are about” she told PoliticsHome

She pointedly distanced herself from Adams, explaining that she does not know and has not met him. Instead she insisted she is focussed “on the local picture” and is “only concerned with being a strong voice for the people in this community” ahead of the vote. 

Conservatives have already expressed concern that local anger surrounding the circumstances of Adams's resignation could impact voting habits. Last month The Times reported that local Tories are well aware of “disillusionment”. Mark Crane, a Tory councillor told the paper: “Having been out on the doorsteps, I know people are unhappy about the way the MP left, and what is going on in wider politics.”

Labour has seemed especially keen to remind “really angry” voters of Adams' personal reasons for triggering the by-election, and "the fact he threw his toys out of the pram because he wanted a peerage and dropped his constituents," according to Lightwood. He told PoliticsHome that there is a “buzz” in the constituency about the possibility of change.

Keir Mather's campaign office in Selby
Keir Mather's campaign office in Selby

Conservative MP for Bury North James Daly was also out campaigning in Selby last week. He told PoliticsHome that people in the area “feel a million miles away from London” and the political discussions that take place in Westminster. He said that Conservative MPs should be making the effort to campaign across the country, including in areas like Selby, both to understand the issues that matter to a specific area, but also for the opportunity to promote the “fantastic good things” the government is doing.  

“I have this perhaps very old fashioned political theory – I think that towns like this are wonderful places, they have a very real sense of pride and history and heritage," he explained. 

"As politicians, if we just ignore them, if people like me don’t come in and try and help and support what I consider to be a very good candidate in respect to that – then I shouldn’t really be in politics.” 

Daly, who is from Huddersfield in West Yorkshire, said that MPs who do not take the chance to get out of Westminster and campaign in towns like Selby are “mad”. 

“We need to recognise, celebrate that each part of the country is distinct in certain ways, but very similar in other ways," he added. 

“Why would you not want to come here and speak to people and try and talk to them and say that 'yeah, you may think that my party or this party or whatever, are this block of people that you see through your newspaper, but I'm a Conservative MP and I believe this'?".

Sunak has made a campaigning visit to the constituency, and Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) has worked to get more senior figures on the ground, including four Cabinet ministers, according to a party source.

Selby and Ainsty is one of the many constituencies across the country that will be reshaped at the next General Election as a result of the boundary review, which redrew the borders of many seats across the country, creating a number of new ones, while abolishing others. 

Either Labour or the Tories are most likely to win this by-election, but Liberal Democrat strategists are still campaigning here, and appear to be playing the long game. They have focussed a lot of their campaigning on the part of the patch that will join the existing Harrogate and Knaresborough seat, one of their key targets in the north of England at the next general election, which is expected to take place before the end of 2024.. 

A Labour win on Thursday in this traditionally Conservative seat could be a signal of a seismic shift towards Keir Starmer's party ahead of the next General Election, with a consistent opposition polling lead suggesting voters have a strong appetite for change. In the meantime, in Selby and Ainsty, the Conservatives are hoping that a promise of a little bit of change locally will be enough for them to cling on here for now. 

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