Wakefield by-election: Labour's tradition of falling out is alive and well - Andrew Vine

LABOUR’S long and fractious tradition of falling out with itself is obviously alive and well in Wakefield.

The mass resignation of the local party’s executive committee over the process for selecting its candidate in the forthcoming by-election, with accusations of arrogance being levelled at Sir Keir Starmer’s office, really doesn’t look good to voters Labour hopes to win back from the Conservatives.

As one long-serving Labour member in Wakefield said to me at the weekend with a touch of exasperation: “Great, isn’t it? Instead of kicking the Tories, we’re kicking lumps out of each other.”

Sign up to our daily newsletter

Well, Labour’s always had a talent for that, with its left and right engaging in furious punch-ups that can leave voters disinclined to support the party feeling that they’ve been forgotten amid the ideological scrapping.

Keir Starmer. Picture: Getty.

A fractious internal dispute is the last thing Labour needs in Wakefield if it is to reclaim a seat it held for 87 years until the Conservatives took it in 2019, because the campaign will be hard enough as it is.

A Labour win in one of the Red Wall constituencies that propelled Boris Johnson to an unassailable Parliamentary majority is far from a foregone conclusion. Even without an argument between the local party and the leader’s office, Labour just does not look like it is in tune with the voters of its traditional northern heartlands any more. The local elections earlier this month showed that.

With a Government in disarray, a Prime Minister that most people would trust about as far as they could throw him, and prices for food and energy going through the roof, Labour should have seized control of councils across the north. It didn’t. The results left Sir Keir with as many questions to answer as Mr Johnson about how much both can depend on the support of voters they used to take for granted.

London and its liberals in Westminster and Wandsworth love Labour, but much of the north is lukewarm, failing to believe the party shares its values and outlook.

Brexit was a factor in Wakefield’s people electing their first Tory MP since 1932, with 63 per cent in favour of leaving the EU, but it goes deeper than that, as it did in Dewsbury, Colne Valley, Keighley and all the other northern seats that turned their back on Labour.

For too many traditionally-minded voters in Yorkshire, Labour is a party that has lost touch with its roots.

Values like patriotism, support for the monarchy and the armed forces, and a belief that criminals should face stiff punishments, all of which are deeply held in Yorkshire’s industrial heartlands, did not seem to be shared by Labour any more, especially under the disastrous leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.

Sir Keir, for all his intelligence and transparent decency, has been unable to shake off those concerns and convince once-faithful Labour supporters that he is on their wavelength.

If he can’t win back Wakefield, then he won’t reclaim any of the other Red Wall seats either at a general election, and without them his chances of forming a Government are non-existent.

Yorkshire, so often an indicator of the way Britain is leaning politically, is going to be so once more.

This by-election will be a measure of Labour’s credibility amongst voters whom the party could rely on for decades.

Wakefield’s people may disapprove of Mr Johnson and his antics, but it’s perfectly possible that they will hold their noses in distaste and vote Conservative again anyway. He is going to move heaven and earth to hang on to the seat, and will deploy all his formidable campaigning skills. He’ll be leaping off the London train at Wakefield Westgate with all the enthusiasm of a schoolboy on a day out, glad-handing the shoppers in the shadow of the cathedral, and putting on his hard hat and high-vis vest as he tours the factories and woos the workers.

And he’ll be selling his levelling-up agenda with all the charm of a snake-oil salesman. He might even be believed, despite public fury at his fine for attending a lockdown-busting party in Downing Street.

Damaged though his reputation is, Mr Johnson still has the knack of persuading people from very different backgrounds to his own that he understands their concerns and shares them. He doesn’t live by the traditional standards of northern industrial constituencies, but he talks them up. That has long been one of his most skilful political tricks and I wouldn’t bet against it working for him again.

Meanwhile, in the midst of the campaign, Labour could find itself without a leader and deputy if Sir Keir and Angela Rayner are slapped with fines by Durham Police for breaching lockdown restrictions and follow through on their pledge to resign.

Wakefield ought to be a walk in the park for Labour.

But even without infighting over the selection of its candidate, it looks more like an uphill struggle.