Mid Bedfordshire by-election: ‘life-long Tories want change’ as battle between Labour and Lib Dems gets heated
On a trip to Mid Bedfordshire, politics editor Ralph Blackburn finds the by-election battle to replace Nadine Dorries is heating up.
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Emma Holland-Lindsay walks purposefully back across the road. “That’s another life-long Conservative voter who says he’s had enough and wants to see a change,” she tells me.
I’m traipsing the picturesque streets of Clophill, one of the 50 or so villages which make up the rural constituency of Mid Bedfordshire. Holland-Lindsay is out on a bright sunny day, speaking to voters on the doorstep ahead of the by-election after the belated resignation of Nadine Dorries.
The former Culture Secretary leaves quite the reputation. By the time she resigned, Dorries had not spoken in the House of Commons for more than a year, had only mentioned her constituency name once in the chamber since the 2019 election, and had stopped running a constituency office.
On my last visit to Mid Bedfordshire, everyone I spoke to was almost universal in their desire for Dorries to quit, with one woman telling me: “It’s an illusion we have an MP - she doesn’t exist as far as we can tell.” And this is a theme which Holland-Lindsay says comes up time and time again on the 40,000 doors she’s knocked ahead of polling day on 19 October.
Since the 2019 general election, the Conservatives have lost six by-elections, including previously safe seats like Somerton and Frome in the West Country and Chesham and Amersham, not far from Bedfordshire.
“The number one top issue is people are really feeling fed up with the Conservatives,” Holland-Lindsay tells me over a cup of tea in Clophill’s busy gastropub the Flying Horse.
“Like the man we just had one on the doorstep now, who has voted Conservative all his life but absolutely has had enough of this government and what they’ve been doing locally. Those are the words coming out of everyone’s mouths when they’re talking to me.”
Holland-Lindsay is proud to tell me she’s at least the fifth generation of her family from Bedfordshire, her grandmother corrected her after she said she was third generation Beds. She’s currently a councillor on Central Bedfordshire Council, which includes the constituency, and chairs the health scrutiny committee.
“What prompted me to stand to be a councillor was the way the Conservatives have taken this area for granted,” she says. “I was out knocking on doors in my own ward, and people were saying ‘I don’t feel listened to’.”
“When the by-election came along I knew there was the opportunity to do that on a bigger scale. We’ve had an MP who hasn’t been active in the community, hasn’t held advice surgeries for a really long time. Some of the most vulnerable in our communities need the support of their MP to stand up for them.”
On the doorstep, voters mention the cost of living crisis, sewage - something the Lib Dems have campaigned strongly on - and Brexit. Despite previous by-elections fought across the Remain and Leave dividing line, Holland-Lindsay won’t be drawn on potentially rejoining the European Union saying: “My top priority is things like healthcare services, the cost of living crisis - because those are the things that people in Mid Beds are really concerned about.”
I ask her for her view on the political hot potato of the week - the pensions triple lock, which guarantees the state pension will rise annually by whichever is highest in September - inflation, average wage increase or 2.5%. However, neither the Conservatives or Labour have fully committed to the incredibly expensive policy - it will soon cost more than education, policing and defence combined - for the next election.
“Putting my mind to the people who I’ve spoken to on the doorstep in Mid Beds, they will see this as another broken promise from the Conservative Party,” Holland-Lindsay says.
“Our party’s policy is that we’ll keep the triple lock. The key thing that will be in voters’ minds is what has been promised to them, what has been said that enables them to plan their lives.
“Clearly we’ve had a disastrous budget from the Conservatives which prompted the start of these interest rate rises, when people are already feeling so hard in their pockets. Now this is going to be causing great concern.”
In other recent by-elections, opposition parties have chosen not to put all their resources into seats they didn’t feel they had a chance of winning - to create one main challenger to the Conservatives. This led to huge swings for Labour in Selby and Ainsty, in Yorkshire, and the Liberal Democrats in Somerton and Frome, in Somerset.
However in Mid Bedfordshire, both parties believe they can win - which could split the vote and help Conservative candidate and current Police and Crime Commissioner Festus Akinbusoye.
And the race is already starting to get quite tense. The Liberal Democrats sent out an email to its members - with a photo of Labour candidate Alistair Strathern dressed as a zombie at an environmental protest - saying: “If you’re trying to overturn the biggest majority ever in a constituency with traditional values, selecting this particular candidate makes your job pretty much impossible.”
Peter Kyle, the Labour MP managing the Mid Bedfordshire campaign, told the News Agents podcast: “What I’m seeing from the Lib Dems is deeply personal. It is aimed at the person, our candidate, not at the policies or politics of the person or the party.
“I sense a style of politics by the Lib Dems in Mid Bedfordshire which is reminiscent of the campaign they ran against Peter Tatchell in the 1980s, and I have no doubt … that if our candidate was gay, they’d be doing a family values campaign.”
Holland-Lindsay refused to be drawn on Labour criticism, saying: “You’d have to speak to him [Peter Kyle] about that. Local residents like the offer from the Liberal Democrats, they like what I’m campaigning for because they feel like for the first time they’re being listened to.
“The choice in Mid Beds is going to be more neglect with the Conservative Party, or it's going to be the Liberal Democrats. On the doorstep, so many lifelong Conservatives say they don’t want to vote for the Conservative Party. And they will not countenance Labour.”
Despite Holland-Lindsay’s bullish words, the Liberal Democrats actually came third in 2019 - with around 6,000 fewer votes than the Labour Party. Its candidate Alistair Strathern finished top of the only poll carried out in the constituency, and unsurprisingly he is also keen to paint this election as a two-horse race.
“I hope people have real clarity about the fact that this election is going to come down to a chance for change with us and more continuity with Festus [Akinbusoye] who was so glowingly endorsed by Nadine in her resignation letter,” he tells me.
Strathern, a maths teacher who has also worked for the Bank of England, resigned as a councillor in Waltham Forest, north-east London, to move back to Mid Bedfordshire, where he grew up, to stand in the by-election.
He says he’s been struck by the “warmth and strong reception we’ve been getting when we’ve been out canvassing” and - like Holland-Lindsay - claims he’s spoken to lots of life-long Tories who will be voting Labour.
Strathern doesn’t appear deterred by the attacks from opposition parties over his participation in an environmental protest, which led to the then Energy Secretary Grant Shapps tell Sir Keir Starmer to ban “eco-zealots” from standing.
He explains: “I think for me it underlines two things - one, how desperate the Conservatives are and the complete absence of any strong, positive record in government they have to campaign on.
“Two, the fact that they very much see us as the main challengers and seek to paint us in any desperate ways that they can.
“Ultimately it’s important to bear in mind that the petition handing I was photographed at was supported by civil society groups ranging from the Women’s Institute all the way to the RSPB. If that is a coalition of groups that the Conservative Party thinks is beyond the pale, then I’m more than happy to welcome them into the coalition of support we’re building here in Mid Bedfordshire.”
Strathern will need a coalition of support from across Mid Bedfordshire’s towns and villages if he is going to be victorious, however one unlikely challenger is in the form of independent councillor Gareth Mackey.
Labour will need to get as many votes from the constituency’s two main towns, Ampthill and Flitwick, as possible, however Cllr Mackey, who represents the latter on Central Bedfordshire Council, is draining votes.
He says: “One of the big things voters are telling me, is that if we actually had an MP who was present and listened, and wasn’t part of all this political party infighting and nonsense, at least they would be heard. They might not be able to solve everything, but at least they would be heard - they’d feel like they were a bit more important.”
And in Flitwick at least, it seems like this message is getting through. On a sunny day, standing near the town’s war memorial, Paul Buckton tells me: “I want to vote for Labour on a national level, but I’m voting independent. He’s the only candidate that’s gone to our door.”
The 63-year-old says: “I’ve lived here 20 years, and Nadine never campaigned for the town. We’ve had the bank closed and the post office closed, we need someone who’s going to represent this town.”
While train driver Kerrie Hamlin, 45, agrees: “I’m going to vote for the independent candidate, I usually vote for Labour but they don’t care about the unions any more and I’m a member of a union on strike.”
One thing’s for certain, every vote is going to be important come polling day.
NationalWorld contacted the Bedford and Kempston Conservatives to request an interview with Festus Akinbusoye however did not receive a response.