Cautious optimism: Bury Labour activists on Christian Wakeford and May elections

Katie Neame
© Twitter/@JamesFrith

“My jaw was on the floor.” This was Bury councillor Nathan Boroda’s initial reaction to Christian Wakeford’s defection. “I could never picture Christian Wakeford as Labour, so it’s just so strange.” It was a “weird dynamic”, Boroda explains, as “I tried quite hard to stop him becoming an MP – in return, he tried quite hard to stop me being a councillor”.

Boroda wants Wakeford to do more community organising. “He’s not from the area,” the councillor notes (the newly Labour MP is from Burnley, which is 20 miles north of Bury). “I’m not a parochial kind of person. You can not be from an area and integrate yourself in the community perfectly well.” He cites the work James Frith did as MP for Bury North between 2017 and 2019. “Frith was the MP for Bury North, rather than necessarily just a Labour MP who happens to be in Bury.”

Meeting Boroda in Unsworth – the Bury South ward he was elected to represent last year – it is clear that this is the kind of politician he is trying to be. He waves hello to various passers-by and speaks at length with a local resident who spots him from his house across the street. Boroda grew up locally, which helps with recognisability, but he also works hard at it: he smiles broadly as he tells me about his 73% contact rate. But he says knocking on doors is not enough: community organising is needed “for it to be authentic”.

On my three-day visit to Bury, I speak to a range of local Labour figures about Wakeford’s defection and find that some are entirely optimistic in response to the development. Labour council leader Eamonn O’Brien says: “You have to welcome the fact that we are not just winning over Conservative voters, but somebody who’s been a Conservative his entire adult life and has recognised that they are no longer, in his view, a party worth being in government for, worth campaigning for, worth supporting.”

Deputy council leader Tamoor Tariq shares that view, telling me: “We’ve got to be in the business of convincing people who didn’t vote for us in 2019, or any other general election, why Labour is the choice at the next general election.” He makes the case that Wakeford’s decision was “a signal as to the feeling of people in Bury and how they will change the way that they vote in 2024”.

Bury South Labour chair Patrick Heneghan acknowledges that reaction in the local party has been “mixed”, but fairly concludes that it “could have gone a lot worse” and he thinks “most people” have accepted it now. “Fair play to Christian – he’s come out with us campaigning, he’s been active, he’s making a real effort,” Heneghan says.

What does that say about Wakeford’s chances of being selected as the Labour candidate at the next general election? Like all sitting Labour MPs, he will have to go through a ‘trigger ballot’ process, giving local members the chance to initiate a full selection. “It’s probably too early to say,” the council leader says of Wakeford’s odds. Boroda is more cynical: “I think given the fact that he’s defected, the party will have had some kind of arrangement with him that he’ll be the candidate next time or else he wouldn’t have moved.”

Other LabourList sources have suggested that it is likely the path will be smoothed for Wakeford’s selection, though there are members who fully intend to argue for a full contest and vote for one. Local youth officer Joshua Harcup is one of those people, telling me: “He’s still got a bit of a way to go to earn total trust… I want the full selection process. It’s nothing against him.”

Bury also has all-out local elections on May 5th. Given that – unusually for this council – all seats are up for grabs, O’Brien says the results are “tough to predict”. Speaking in the Brown Cow pub to the north of the town of Bury – the picturesque location chosen for the national launch of Labour’s local election campaign – he says he hopes Labour keeps its majority. “I’m confident we will. But there’s no question, it’s still a very tough election fight.”

Councillor Charlotte Morris – who won her seat in Bury suburb Elton in 2019 by 16 votes – similarly manages expectations, telling me: “We just have to work really, really hard, and smart, and also hope a little.” She notes that some voters may not realise they have three votes, one for each of the three seats in their ward. “No overall control is a probably worst-case scenario,” Morris concludes.

But Heneghan highlights the potential upsides of the all-out system. I interview him on a day he is going canvassing in Holyrood, a ward that he previously represented but Labour has not won in a decade. It currently has three Liberal Democrat councillors. “Because it’s all-out elections, we have a chance, if we pull it together, of knocking all three off in one go, which would be brilliant,” the local party chair says.

Local candidates and party activists report the usual issues coming up on the doorstep: potholes, bins, the usual pavement politics. But national topics have also been raised by voters. “People hate, hate Johnson – they really do,” Boroda says. “In 2019, there was no great love for him. But now he’s just completely plummeted. And I don’t think a lot of people in Westminster get that he is damaged goods.”

Former Bury North MP James Frith, who hopes to be selected again as Labour’s candidate, echoes this feeling but is more measured on whether the ‘partygate’ damage to Johnson’s reputation is irreparable. “The die is cast in terms of believing that Johnson’s a liar,” he says. “And it’s whether people then conclude that because he is, that’s enough to depart from [the Conservatives] in terms of votes.”

The cost of living is also coming up as a salient issue. O’Brien says it “completely dominates” and “there will be people in Bury who don’t know at the end of this month if they can afford to pay their rent, if they can afford to turn the heating on, if they can afford to feed their children”.

Deputy leader Tariq says some voters have expressed regret about voting Tory in 2019. “Often people say they weren’t comfortable with the decision, but they felt that that was the only viable option,” he tells me. “Obviously, I don’t think we can be complacent with those conversations, that’s just a snapshot of how people are feeling,” he offers as a caveat. “What’s really important is that we maximise our efforts on the ground and that that frustration and anger is translated to the ballot box.”

Tariq’s words will be encouraging to the Labour leadership, which has the primary aim of regaining voters lost to the Tories in 2019. And his assessment could have wider significance beyond Bury itself. “Bury North is a bit of a microcosm of England,” Morris tells me when I join her on a sunny afternoon leafletting in Elton. The constituency is often viewed as a bellwether and was the most marginal seat in England at the 2019 general election. It fell to the Tories by just 105 votes, a figure I heard repeatedly during my visit, burned as it is into the local party’s consciousness.

Speaking to people in Bury, there is a cautious sense of optimism about the local elections – though it is cautious. “It’s going to be a tough fight,” former councillor John Smith tells me when I sit down with him and his wife Stella, a fellow former councillor and ex-mayor of Bury. But he concludes simply: “We deserve to win.” In that sense, Bury lives up to its reputation as a window onto the national landscape: a fight that Labour deserves to win – but the result is still far from guaranteed.

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