The inside story of how Labour lost Wakefield for the first time since the 1930s at the 2019 General Election

The last time Wakefield elected a Conservative MP, George V was King of England, Hollywood great James Dean was a baby and Manchester United and Leeds had just been relegated from English football’s top division. Huddersfield finished fifth, if you’re interested.

Friday, 13th December 2019, 1:27 pm
Updated Friday, 13th December 2019, 2:26 pm

But for the first time since 1931, the city has voted blue, with Labour’s Mary Creagh losing her seat after 14 years in Parliament.

The result was emblematic of a huge shift to the Tories across the Leave-voting areas in the north of England, where despite traditional Labour loyalties, Brexit was simply too big to look beyond.

And yet in Wakefield, the Conservatives’ General Election campaign could not have got off to a worse start. Candidate Antony Calvert, who fought the seat in both 2015 and 2017, stood down after historic Facebook posts, which were branded offensive, came to light.

Ms Creagh shakes hands with the winning Conservative candidate, Imran Ahmad-Khan.

Yet within a couple of weeks of that controversy, Tory campaign sources were claiming they had unprecedented support in parts of the city where they'd never done well.

In Lupset, for example, the party was polling in at a whopping 64 per cent - a clear an indicator as any they believed, that they were going to win.

Their buoyancy was matched by the downcast mood among the Labour camp.

“Not good”, was the gloomy response from one senior Labour councillor, when asked about how the party was being received on the doorstep.

The results came through in the early hours of Friday morning.

Campaigners confirmed it was the likes of Ossett and Lupset where the party was struggling to gain traction.

In another area of the city, where Labour votes are normally as certain as a family row at Christmas, one source said the response had picked up in the days before polling day, but admitted it had been “slow” beforehand.

A warning sign for Labour had been the local elections in May this year, where the party’s internal divisions were laid bare.

As Theresa May’s administration and Brexit deal were dying slow deaths, Labour councillors both privately and publicly briefed against Mary Creagh and Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford MP Yvette Cooper over their perceived opposition to leaving the EU.

Yvette Cooper saw her majority substantially cut, but she clung on to win the Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford seat for a seventh time.

Neither, contrary to popular belief, have ever actually publicly expressed an explicit desire to reverse the 2016 referendum result. But their role in voting against successive deals and blocking a no-deal Brexit, was, in the eyes of some, irreconcilable with their constituents' clear desire to leave.

“What the hell are they doing?” was the unprompted outburst from one senior party figure, as the local election results were dissected at Thornes Park Athletics Stadium that balmy spring night.

What was more astonishing was a very public attack by Councillor Steve Tulley, who growled down a microphone that Cooper, "wouldn’t know democracy if it scratched her in the eyeballs" and blamed her for Labour's loss of three local seats. Results elsewhere weren't too good either and the soundbite drew intrigue from way beyond West Yorkshire.

Supporters of Cooper, deeply unimpressed with Coun Tulley’s intervention pointed to the fact that one of Labour’s seats, in Knottingley, had gone to the pro-Remain Liberal Democrats in a landslide. The others had been lost, not to the Tories or UKIP, but to left-leaning independent candidates well-known in their respective areas.

Ms Creagh accepts defeat on a dreadful night for Labour across the country.

A petition had been launched in April to deselect Cooper, but while there was a degree of animosity towards her in Pontefract and Castleford, large swathes of the signatures came from people living miles away from the constituency.

At Thursday's General Election, she retained her seat, albeit with her majority whittled down to just over 1,000.

The Conservatives' fight in Pontefract and Castleford lost impetus early on when the original candidate was deselected by the party's London-based HQ. It was a move that upset local activists and appeared to take the wind out of the campaign's sails, according to those on the ground.

The presence of the Brexit Party split their vote too.

In Wakefield, where the Tories have steadily chipped away at Labour's majority over the course of several elections, the story was different.

Media from beyond the district sensed the seat would be a yardstick for the whole election. National newspapers, Newsnight and even journalists from Portugal interviewed shoppers outside the Ridings Shopping Centre, and found lifelong Labour voters intent on voting Tory to "get Brexit done".

Few figures within the local party seemed to believe Jeremy Corbyn would become Prime Minister. "If it's going to be five more years of austerity with Boris Johnson, we're going to have to look after our people," one senior councillor said during a discussion about policy in the run-up to polling day.

Despite Labour canvassers on Thursday appearing slightly more optimistic than in previous weeks that their vote was holding up, and late rumours of a big swing to the party nationally, Ms Creagh lost her seat by a margin of 3,000 votes.

"The party of the people must not ignore the verdict of the people," Ms Creagh said as she conceded in the early hours of Friday morning.

"We must learn the right lessons from this grievous defeat."

For all Labour's Wakefield cohort will have had their fingers badly burnt by this most harrowing of General Election beatings, the upside for them may be that this is as bad as it gets for some time

The party still has a huge majority on Wakefield Council which it's unlikely to lose anytime soon. The Conservatives hold just 11 of the authority's 63 seats, and with austerity still fresh, remain deeply unpopular in a lot of places.

With Brexit (probably) almost out of the way, the motive for voting Tory for many people this time, will soon no longer exist.

But the deep divisions within Labour at a national level, over leaving the EU, Corbyn's leadership and the presence of Momentum, have been reflected in Wakefield too.

How quickly those wounds are healed is probably critical to how quickly it recovers in these parts.

Local Democracy Reporting Service