A letter from North Shropshire

Graeme Currie supplies the inside story of how Labour came third in last Thursday’s by-election

Labour threw this by-election away. It is such a shame because this could have been a once-in-a-generation chance to win here. But Labour was buried a distant third behind the Lib Dems which will take some serious undoing. It really didn’t need to be this way. 

Ben Wood, the Labour Candidate, was hung out to dry by the Labour Party HQ which did not resource a serious campaign. He was also undermined by disaffection and disengagement amongst local Party members following the controversial shortlisting process.

The NEC-led selection process vetoed my own shortlisting to go forward to local members, despite having been the candidate in the last three general elections and having built up a good body of local engagement and support. Instead, three previously unknown candidates were shortlisted of whom only Ben Woods was local, in that he was born in Oswestry – he is a Labour Party political advisor working in the Westminster bubble and was perceived as an outsider by many voters.

The Lib Dems had no claim to be the main challenger based on general election results. Labour was a clear second in North Shropshire in 1997, 2001, 2005, 2015, 2017 and 2019. The Lib Dems only narrowly managed second in 2010. Labour almost won the seat in 1997; the Lib Dems have never been anywhere near it. Helen Morgan, now the Lib Dem MP, came third with less than half Labour’s vote in 2019.

Up to 2005, Shropshire as a County Council had a Labour Council Leader and the two largest towns in North Shropshire, Oswestry and Market Drayton, were Labour strongholds.

My huge frustration is that Labour had 31% of the vote in 2017 and somehow this by-election wasn’t seen as a huge opportunity. In 2017 the Lib Dems were less than 200 votes away from losing their deposit!

This time we saw from Labour a pitifully poorly resourced campaign. No Starmer visit, no central resources to speak of, no nothing really. Who was behind the Guardian stories promoting the ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ and entreating Labour voters to vote Lib Dem tactically? It looked like an inside job, and this was confirmed in the Guardian itself as election week started with a Guardian article again leading with the Lib Dems as favourites in the North Shropshire poll, adding:

“Speaking on Sunday, the Labour MP Yasmin Qureshi effectively acknowledged the party had deliberately left the field clear for the Lib Dems. ‘Well, it’s realistic,’ the shadow Foreign Office minister told Times Radio. “I mean, let’s face it, Labour are never going to win North Shropshire. The Lib Dems do have an opportunity to do so. It’s not just soft-pedalling, I do think that in constituencies like these ones, where Labour don’t have a huge amount of resources … we know, realistically, we have no chance of winning.”

The Labour Party and Lib Dems at a national strategic level had clearly taken a tactical decision on the two recent by-elections. At Bexley and Sidcup, the Lib Dems did very little and here in North Shropshire the absolute opposite. This ‘informal pact’ was denied but if it quacks like a duck and walks like a duck… it is a duck!

The Lib Dem by-election machine kicked in big-time.  We were carpet-bombed with leaflets; Ed Davey their Leader visited at least five times; Lib Dem canvassers descended on the area from all over the country; and sponsored posts by Lib Dems were all over social media. It has been estimated that on the final weekend of the campaign between 500 and 1,000 Lib Dem canvassers were on the streets knocking on doors with multiple phone canvassers deployed.

After the disastrous result for Labour, Jonathan Reynolds, the newly promoted Shadow Cabinet Business Secretary, was put up for the media and commented, “We put in the amount of effort proportionate to our chance of winning.”

I say: no, this is not right. The truth is that the chances of winning were proportionate to the effort put in.   

Nationally this could have been Labour’s great reset with the Tories in disarray and Labour ahead in the national polls. But instead, it was gifted to the Lib Dems. Labour ‘strategists’ told the media we can’t win here, voters duly took note. Labour came third, missing an historic opportunity.

This could have been a huge change moment for Labour. North Shropshire was the Owen Paterson ground zero of sleaze, but it wasn’t fought for, Labour was just ‘‘not bothered” – as described by a senior tory insiderin the Daily Telegraph on Saturday 18th December.

This deliberate lack of effort nationally from Labour HQ has also probably sacrificed Labour as a force in North Shropshire for years and years to come. The hard-fought gains to win Labour as the well-established strong second force in North Shropshire since 2010 are now in ruins and the activist base is shattered by the shenanigans.

Graeme Currie was the Labour Party Candidate in North Shropshire in 2015, 2017 and 2019.

Image: Keir Starmer. Author: Rwendland, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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