Alongside the more prominent battles in Uxbridge and Chingford, there are signs of a possible sensational upset in the nominally true blue Buckinghamshire seat of Wycombe, which has been held by the Conservatives since 1951. Labour’s strong 2017 result saw it win over 20,000 votes to the Tories’ 26,500, making Wycombe a marginal. And according to Electoral Calculus, the Tory incumbent, self-styled ‘Brexit hard man’, ERG chair and free-market ideologue Steve Baker has a 29% chance of losing his seat to local Labour councillor Khalil Ahmed.
A recent Datapraxis/YouGov poll has confirmed that a tactical voter swing and a strong youth turnout could indeed unseat Baker. Other factors also speak for change: like many constituencies around London, Wycombe is seeing younger, Labour-leaning families arrive from the capital. A UKIP candidate will strip away a few of Baker’s votes. And with the local returning officer reporting almost 1,500 new registrations for the election – of whom many will be students from the local Bucks New University campus who’ve decided that this time it’s worth voting at their place of study – Baker is getting noticeably nervous.
In a constituency that voted to Remain, Baker’s obsessive opposition to Theresa May’s Brexit and his undisguised enthusiasm for a catastrophic no deal have alienated much of his natural voter base. But, more than that, Baker’s lack of interest or engagement as a constituency MP has left many voters deeply disappointed. Few people in Wycombe have anything good to say about him at all, with even lifelong Tories considering staying at home – or switching to Labour in disgust.
High Wycombe, once a prosperous market town just 30 minutes from London, now has the boarded up shops and rough sleepers so familiar elsewhere. Local schools, GP practices and police stations have been massively hit by the austerity measures imposed by the Conservatives and before them the Tory-Lib Dem coalition. Most of all, the closure of local A&E and maternity services at Wycombe hospital, leaving the severely injured and obstetric emergencies with a journey of at least 30-40 minutes via country roads to Stoke Mandeville (when an ambulance finally comes), is a source of real bitterness here.
More and more, constituents are aware of Steve Baker’s eager and active role in this degeneration. He has voted consistently for welfare cuts and austerity; for VAT rises for people on the street and tax cuts for corporations and those earning over £150,000. Local hustings have been seen voters calling Baker out on his record, and then bursting into boos and jeers at his attempts to obfuscate and deny the reality before their eyes. His short photo-op appearances at local homeless charities do little to offset his committed support for such policies as heartless as the bedroom tax, which has seen local people evicted from their homes of a lifetimes on the death of a family member.
Under pressure at the hustings, the climate sceptic Baker has even begun acknowledging the need to combat the climate emergency – a position that falls apart on any analysis of his disastrous environmental voting record or his links to far-right climate denialist US think tanks. His vote against legalising gay marriage in Northern Ireland fits neatly, if depressingly, into this spectrum. And to date, comparatively little has been made of Baker’s questionable financial interests – whether his income from a consultancy to many companies exporting weapons to the despotic and murderous regime in Saudi Arabia (all while the vice-chair of the all-party group on aerospace) or his brief and disastrous involvement in a company attempting to profiteer from Brexit chaos by selling gold to investors as a safe haven.
Even the Daily Telegraph could not hide its disapproval when Baker accepted 5-star hospitality from the brutal dictatorship in Equitorial Guinea in a farcical visit in which he was reportedly more concerned with his own pet obsession of free markets than the barbaric human rights abuses perpetrated by the government there – up to and including alleged cannibalism. What local voters will think of such behaviour if and when it is brought to their attention remains to be seen.
Ironically, the only thing that could save Steve Baker now are the minor ‘progressive’ opposition candidates, which include Liberal Democrats, Wycombe Independents, Greens and an independent Climate Change candidate. Whether standing to ‘stop Brexit’ or ‘stop climate change’, the most any of these candidates could do would be to enable both should they succeed in splitting off a votes in a clear two-horse race. With the breathtaking hypocrisy we’ve come to expect from the party that complained so vociferously about fake news in the Brexit referendum, the local Lib Dem candidate (a teacher, depressingly) has published a completely misleading bar chart claiming that ‘the Lib Dems can win for you’. This chart places the Lib Dems in second place, failing to mention that the Brexit Party came first in the European election from which they project their data – and the Tories came sixth. By this logic, Wycombe would in fact be a Brexit-Lib Dem marginal…
The vast majority of Wycombe voters are much smarter than this, thankfully. With every single tactical voting site – even the most pro-Lib Dem ones – agreeing that only a vote for Labour can beat the Tories, it’s become clear that Khalil Ahmed, a committed local Labour councillor, is the option to bring real change in a constituency that the Tories have taken for granted for far too long. It is now simply up to getting enough Labour volunteers, many of whom have benefitted from a Momentum persuasive conversation training, out onto the doorstep, winning round voters one by one.
Will we succeed? There are too many unknowns to tell – from the Brexit-driven disruption of traditional voting patters to the forecast of bad weather or even snow in the beautiful but hilly Chilterns on polling day. But is it worth it? Absolutely. Wycombe – and Britain – deserve so much better than the likes of Steve Baker in parliament. And to make it happen, we need to turn the dozens of Labour volunteers out here into a flood! Join us on the doorstep in these last, crucial days – and let’s #UnseatBaker.
Steve Hudson is currently volunteering as a Labour Legend in Wycombe.