Sam Dixon: City of Chester by-election is “our poll of polls on Rishi Sunak”

Katie Neame

The City of Chester by-election has got a lot less attention than it probably would have done if national polls did not continue to strongly favour Labour (YouGov’s latest poll, published on Tuesday, gives the party a 23-point lead over the Tories). Labour’s majority in the seat is a fairly comfortable 6,164, enough to make even ConservativeHome conclude that this by-election should be an “easy Labour hold”.

But the constituency’s electoral history gives a far more complex picture, something Labour’s candidate Sam Dixon acknowledges when we spoke on the phone this week. She was involved in the 1997 campaign that returned the seat’s first Labour MP, Christine Russell, who represented Chester throughout the New Labour years. The seat was won back by the Tories in 2010, before Labour regained it at the next election by the slimmest of margins – just 93 votes. “Chester is an unusual place, in that it often reflects the feeling in the country,” Dixon tells me. “It will be really interesting to see what does happen on Thursday.”

This by-election will be Rishi Sunak’s first big electoral test since becoming Prime Minister, and the sense Dixon is getting on the ground is that he has not yet succeeded in repairing the Tory Party’s reputation among voters. “In the Conservative areas, there’s a lot of people who are very disenchanted and betrayed. They are considering their votes very carefully,” she says. “I met one woman who was so cross about the conduct of the government that she’d actually ripped up her postal ballot.” In this context, Dixon sees a wider importance to a strong Labour performance in the by-election, arguing: “We need to send a really clear message to the Conservative government. This is almost our poll of polls on Rishi Sunak and the chaos that we’ve seen over the summer.”

But the result will also have major significance for Labour’s reputation locally. The previous MP, Chris Matheson, resigned in October after the parliamentary watchdog recommended that he be suspended from the Commons for “serious sexual misconduct” following an inquiry into a complaint by a junior member of his staff. Dixon does not think that the allegations against Matheson have impacted how Labour is viewed locally, however, telling me: “The first conversation that I had with a voter after the resignation, they said that clearly they were disappointed. However, they were very pleased with how quickly the Labour Party had dealt with it. And then the conversation moved on to what happened next.” She adds that she thinks her track record “reassures” voters that Labour “has an offer in me that is going to be consistent and strong”.

Dixon has served on the local council – Cheshire West and Chester Council – since 2011 and was previously leader of the council for four years, the first woman to hold the position. She has set out a five-point pitch to voters, which draws on her experience as a councillor and reflects the conversations that she has been having with voters over the last 12 years. “Top of the list is dealing with the Conservative cost-of-living crisis,” she says. “That’s the issue that is coming back on the doorstep all the time.” Her other priorities are “particular” to Chester, covering areas including the local tourism and retail sector, public transport and policing.

Dixon is quietly confident ahead of polling day, describing her campaign as “very positive” and adding: “I hate to jinx anything, but I think it’s gonna go well on Thursday.” Her campaign has received support from across the Labour Party and wider labour movement, which she tells me has been “absolutely heartwarming”.

“The trade unions have been involved. We’ve had members of parliament from across the entire country, from across the [Parliamentary Labour Party]. Party members from far and wide have come. It’s just been incredible.” She adds: “If any LabourList readers want to come and help us on Thursday, we would be delighted to see them.”

Dixon is upbeat about the current direction of the Labour Party, describing her time at this year’s conference as a “really positive experience”. She tells me: “The unity that we’ve seen in conference has carried through, and we’re certainly seeing it here in Chester during this campaign. I’m a great believer in the Labour family. And I think that this by-election has seen the Labour family at its best.”

Closing the interview, I ask Dixon what it would mean to her to be elected to represent Chester – the city she has lived in for most of her adult life and an area she has called home since she was four years old. “It’d be a huge honour, it really would,” she says. “It’s a responsibility that I would take very, very seriously.” She pauses for a moment as I thank her for her time, before adding with a laugh: “You nearly made me cry then.”

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