High noon in Corby
The Tories are blundering and, so far, Labour has not put a foot wrong. Welcome to the Corby by-election
When Louise Mensch decided that two and a bit years in parliament was quite long enough, pundits scratched their heads. None could recall another MP resigning a seat, midway through a parliament, creating a tricky by-election for their own party, just because they could not be bothered any more.
Corby’s MP was a Tory A-lister, favoured by David Cameron, and was gifted a parliamentary seat over the heads of local Tory activists and councillors. The local Conservative club is rammed with people saying ‘I told you so.’ They could forgive her colourful private life and television outbursts, but they could never forgive her previous support for the Labour party. Now, they are glad to be shot of her. Her brief time in parliament (there are interns who stay longer) will be a mere footnote in a whirlwind of book launches, Manhattan cocktail parties and contrived appearances in OK! magazine.
The metropolitan chick-lit author was always a strange fit in the former steel town of Corby and its satellites. Corby itself was a bit of a strange fit into the local landscape. In 1932, the steel firm Stewart & Lloyds created a brand new integrated steelworks in Corby, then a village in the Northamptonshire countryside. During the Great Depression, it attracted workers from the depressed areas of the north of England, Northern Ireland and, most famously, Scotland. That is why, even today, you can hear the ‘Corby accent’, that strange blend of middle England and the Gorbals. There will be plenty of Labour activists hearing it this autumn. Labour had a candidate already selected to fight the seat. Andy Sawford’s summer plans were rudely interrupted by being thrown unexpectedly into a bare-knuckle by-election.
Ed Miliband cannily launched Labour’s campaign in the market town of Thrapston, one of the many towns and villages of east Northamptonshire which also comprise the parliamentary constituency. Here, he asked a group of local young people what they wanted most. ‘A Nando’s in Thrapston’ came top of the list. Cue much metropolitan media chuckling. Yet a Nando’s in Thrapston is exactly what voting Labour should offer. Simple metaphors for economic growth and opportunity are what swing elections.
Labour’s campaign should focus on jobs. The steelworks is no longer the economic engine. In 1980, a previous Tory recession caused the works to close, and 10,000 local families lost their breadwinner. The ‘Corby candle’, the chimney visible throughout the town, was snuffed out forever. But jobs have been lost in the present recession, from Aquascutum, Tata Steel and the Argos distribution centre in Wincanton. People are worried.
This is home to the ‘squeezed middle’, the huge slice of every electorate in an advanced democracy, which is working harder and taking home less than a decade ago. You can hear Barack Obama going after their votes in Ohio and Florida, just as hard as Miliband is going after them outside the WH Smith in Corby’s Queen’s Square. This is not classic ‘middle England’, like, say, Hemel Hempstead or Stevenage. The combination of a former industrial town alongside true-blue rural villages is what makes the local electorate more complex. Corby folk have voted in an MP from the governing party at every election since 1979. After 1997, it was Labour’s now much-missed Phil Hope. Yet much of the constituency is hard going for Labour. It is the England of village fetes and the WI. Talk of landslides or shoo-ins is dangerously misjudged.
It has been written up as a test – not of the coalition, but of Ed Miliband. It is true that if Labour fails to take the seat it will be disappointing, but it will not be a catastrophe. Labour’s defeat in Bradford has not derailed the party’s steady increase in support in the opinion polls, and its determined reconnection with the British people.
But so far, Labour’s campaign has got everything right: a sound candidate; a commitment to getting Labour campaigners into every part of the constituency; and, above all, a clear focus on jobs and opportunity. Labour’s general secretary, Iain McNicol, knows that after the debacle in Bradford, a campaign-by-numbers will not suffice. Already party staff are cancelling all shore leave and moving to east Northamptonshire. Perhaps even party conference in Manchester might be cut short to allow another day of campaigning.
The Tories are making strategic blunders. The wreckage left by their former representative has yet to be cleared up. Local Tory activists are annoyed and disengaged. They have struggled to find a candidate. They would be crazy to select another A-lister from outside Corby. Yet to select an unknown local might suggest they have given up. Without a candidate, there is no campaign, no message, no reason to vote Conservative. By adding Corby to the list of by-elections and police commissioner elections on 15 November, the government has given Labour a long lead-time to polling day: just what it needs to swing the seat.
by-elections, Conservatives, Iain McNicol, Labour, Louise Bagshawe, squeezed middle