‘Some will label me a quitter, or, no doubt, worse. Those are labels with which I can live. The label Conservative no longer is.’ – This was the widely reported parting shot of Conservative member of parliament, Stephen Phillips as he resigned his ultra-safe seat. My Conservative MP.
I have to admit, his resignation came out of the blue. Although, frequently critical of his government, as any diligent back-bench MP should be, he seemed every bit the loyalist. His reasons for going were apparently threefold, and included the prime minister’s approach to Brexit together with her aspiration to use the royal prerogative in order to bypass parliament. The government’s approach to unaccompanied child refugees, and changes to the use of the international aid budget, were the other two charges he laid at Theresa May’s door.
To be fair, it would be hard to imagine a bigger gift for our party. Notwithstanding the seriousness of the issues involved, to even suggest the moniker ‘Conservative’ was worse than other insults, especially in the context of recent online abuse, is damning. And from a former Conservative MP too. That is before we consider the subjects on which his criticism focussed.
But here too, are presented three meaty policy areas for the opposition to get our teeth into. The prime minister’s approach to Brexit is arrogant and aloof. Most Leave voters did not vote to impoverish themselves further, there is no mandate for a slash and burn approach to our trade relations.
The whole process needs careful handling; it is not some small tweak of protocol that can be undone the moment the government changes. Brexit is not just for Christmas. This is an issue that should be steered by a working group on which all parties at Westminster are represented, as well as independent experts. It is the only way Brexit can have long-term credibility and allow for divisions to be healed in the future.
Beyond that, child refugees are a necessarily emotive subject, now completely hijacked by vile press headlines. Most people are happy to offer hospitality to those in need, and if anyone should be able to play to the gallery on compassion and care it is the Labour party. When presented with the facts in these instances, the British people are mostly a very generous, giving lot.
We have so much on which to hold this government to account. It has lost two MPs, been dragged through the courts and embarrassed, and still has no coherent answer to the biggest threat facing our country since the war. It slips from crisis to disaster, divided and demoralised, with jokers at the helm, and barely any indication of where they aim to take us.
So this is a byelection that demands a strong fight from Labour, a real opportunity to seize our moment in the full glare of media publicity. Sleaford and North Hykeham is already being touted in the press as the ‘Brexit’ byelection. A straight fight between pro-Brexit Tories, and pro-Brexit Ukip to see who can be Breixitier. As a local Labour party activist, I would posit it should not be anything of the sort. Labour were second here in 2015. A distant second maybe, but still a good thousand votes ahead of third placed Ukip. The Liberal Democrats, together with the well organised Lincolnshire Independents trailed far behind.
Labour should be aiming to have the Tories on the run here. While winning it is probably a daydream, putting in a good campaign to reinforce that second place would go a long way to showing that Labour still has ambition to challenge outside the big cities. It is far from being a pointless fight either, the electoral landscape is changing fast, and local elections are to be held next May. About 40 per cent of voters here backed Remain in the referendum, and many now feel disenfranchised. Other parts of the constituency are far from affluent, their voters seeping away from the Tories in disgust. There is plenty of potential support for us here, but we need a hunger and desire to go out and capture it.
There has not been a byelection in rural Lincolnshire in my lifetime. Never a real opportunity for Labour to arrive in numbers and put down a marker. Stephen Phillips has opened that door a fraction, now is our chance to get our foot in and start to prize it wider. Let us engage with rural voters, fight local as well as national, and sharpen ourselves up for battles in marginals to come. I look forward to welcoming a great many Labour friends here, to help us build up a new support base among the brassica fields.
Christabel Edwards is a Labour party activist. She tweets @Christabel321
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