What will it take to make the Christian Wakeford defection really work?

Peter Apps
©️ Richard Townshend/CC BY 3.0

According to the biblical parable of the Prodigal Son, there is more rejoicing in heaven for one sinner who repents than for 99 righteous individuals who keep doing the right thing. By that measure, the surprise defection this week of Conservative Bury South MP Christian Wakeford is clearly cause for celebration. It is also, in many respects, good front page-grabbing politics. The Tories have nosedived in the polls, and Labour has the scent at last of a party that might enter government.

So many people were reportedly trying to join the Bury South local party meeting on Wednesday that the pages of the party website are said to have crashed (although that might also be its legendarily troubled IT). To transform this short-term win into longer-term legitimacy – and Wakeford from a Tory who reportedly described the party he just joined as a “bunch of c***s” in a Conservative WhatsApp group to a re-elected and popular Labour MP – will take effort. If it works, it could prove a useful part of building a narrative that wins the power to change the country. Failure, however, would be messy – and the party must handle the process well, regardless of how Wakeford himself performs.

Other Tory MPs, we are told, may follow and, after months of Corbyn-era members leaving, Keir Starmer’s party is now attracting others who believe that he opens the door to credibility and victory. “Christian Wakeford has joined a forward-thinking party with a plan,” wrote party chair Anneliese Dodds in The Times on Thursday, also highlighting that footballer Gary Neville – long touted as a potential future Labour candidate – had also joined the previous day.

The local ramifications will be complex, and there could be plenty of time for this to play out before the Conservatives are forced to call the next election in December 2024. Their dramatic slump in the polls significantly reduces the chances of an early vote, and that might give Wakeford and the local and national parties time to overcome some pointy hurdles. Wakeford and the local party know the coming months will contain discomfort: his Twitter feed bravely still contains a 2019 post accusing the local Labour council of “letting down” the town, while as recently as July he was on record in parliament saying Starmer’s Labour “no longer represents” working-class communities”.

The party had the good sense to brief 2019 Bury South candidate Lucy Burke on the defection 15 minutes before it broke. Both that and her response show sensitivity and class. “I welcome the decision of any Conservative MP to walk away from this broken and disreputable government,” she tweeted the next day. “I believe that people’s views can change – being politically active would be pointless if this were not the case. However, I also believe in respecting the electorate and the democratic processes of the labour movement.”

Others will be less restrained. An emergency motion at the local Constituency Labour Party (CLP) condemning Wakeford was tabled (and not considered). Nationally, many on the left are furious at the whole affair. Following a Thursday Zoom meeting of the CLP, chair Peter Heneghan said members welcomed Wakeford’s decision and agreed with him that the Prime Minister’s conduct was “disgraceful”. Still, Wakeford will need to seriously impress local supporters before the next election.

He will likely face a trigger ballot and should probably embrace it. It’s in the party’s interest to make sure that he faces credible challengers in any reselection – including the 2019 contender, if she chooses. If he can win that, the constituency fight will be easier.

Will other Tories dare follow? A modern Conservative with a reputation as a good constituency MP might be able to make the journey across to Labour if they both mean it and can sell it. But it won’t and should not be easy. The line that politicians are ‘all the same’ is too easy an attack line, particularly in an era where democracy itself is under fire.

Wakeford is an awkward hostage to fortune in another way: in 2020, he cosponsored and voted for a private members bill that would force MPs who change their party affiliation to face a by-election. Many of his constituents may feel similarly. Weathering these moments is part of politics, but it is hardly the kind of politics a jaded electorate wants to see.

23 MPs have crossed the Commons floor to another party in the last 30 years. Of the 21 who did not immediately call a by-election, only two were re-elected at the next election – Shaun Woodward and Alan Howarth in 1997, and even then only by both shifting to other safer Labour constituencies. Nine chose not to run again, and the other ten were defeated at the polls, most being Change UK candidates in 2019.

Those odds might not look promising. But if the party and its new MP – and any others who might follow – can carry themselves with competence, compassion and cohesion, then they might just persuade the local and national electorate to trust them with real power.

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