There is a tendency to see the Mid Beds by-election as being all about Nadine Dorries, but if her name comes up with voters it’s as an embarrassment they have put behind them. She was first elected in 2005, but over the years her eccentricities and worse have driven away all but her most doting supporters. She gave up holding local surgeries and her office has long been closed. It is now a dance studio. Mid Beds has been electing Conservative MPs since 1931, but Dorries has tested that relationship to the limit.
She is an embarrassment for the local Conservative party. Its website claims it is “dedicated to helping the constituency”. But in an attempt to exculpate themselves from her excesses, their chair takes a quite different view: “The association’s primary function is to secure the return of Conservative candidates at elections,” he writes. After that, it seems, the voters are on their own. And indeed they have been. As far as is known, Dorries spends her time at her house in the Cotswolds. It certainly isn’t in the Commons, where she hadn’t spoken for more than a year.
Tory vote collapses, but like Dorries will it move elsewhere?
Tory hegemony has probably been weakened by demographic changes. Mid Beds is commuter territory: London is 40 minutes away by train. Among its 48 villages it has the third highest concentration of mortgage-holders in the country. Polls show a collapse in the Conservative vote, which trend is observed by canvassers on the doorstep. But they will all admit the question is whether disgruntled Tories will switch parties or simply stay at home.
There is no sign of an election driving through leafy rural roads around Ampthill, none of the usual plethora of blue posters. Just the sporadic crack of gunfire from the Whitbread estate. A shoot. Life goes on. Well, life and death.
Ampthill itself seems prosperous in a quiet and determinedly old-fashioned way. There is an old-fashioned sweet shop, an upmarket but old-fashioned jeweller, a bespoke tailor. An elderly couple shuffle into the only charity shop and declare: “We’ll be voting Conservative and hoping for the best. We knew Nadine before she moved down to Tewkesbury.”
Tewkesbury! So that’s where she’s gone.
“I don’t intend to vote. It only encourages them.”
A man reading the paper over coffee says: “I don’t intend to vote. It only encourages them.” That sentiment is prevalent. Of all those approached, probably more than half claim they don’t intend to vote. “I’m fed up with the broken promises,” says one woman.
Andrew is a retired engineer and he usually votes Tory, but he’s fed up too. He likes Boris Johnson, but saw he was a hopeless prime minister. He likes Rishi Sunak, “an honest man”, but says he has the wrong team. “We were promised so much on the NHS and social care, but it just hasn’t happened. And it’s beyond me as to why doctors are still on strike.”
Andrew voted Remain and resents no longer being able to think of himself as a European. He isn’t certain he won’t vote Tory but thinks it unlikely. He will probably go for the Liberal Democrats as a protest.
“Dorries was no good whatever,” says Roger, “Only interested in self-aggrandisement.” He is another who normally votes Tory but is disillusioned. He has yet to decide where to put his cross this time. “Starmer is a competent man,” he says. “But he needs more people.” So will he vote Labour this time? Roger is giving nothing away.
Europe and Brexit? It’s been abandoned by the parties
David from Broom usually votes either Labour or LibDem, but he isn’t impressed by either candidate, and Nadine Dorries is a “spoilt brat”. He would rather vote LibDem in this election, because he wants proportional representation, but sounds more likely to choose Labour tactically.
He, like others, is concerned the LibDems’ tactics particularly will split the vote. “I don’t care which of them wins as long as we get the Tories out,” he says, then complains at length about Brexit. Another emerging from Waitrose asks in passing: “When is Starmer going to get us back into Europe?” It is surprising how often the subject comes up unprompted, and rather scorns comments from both Keir Starmer and Ed Davey that people have lost interest. Voters are often just forlorn at having the subject abandoned by the political parties.
So on to Shefford, which appears to be closed; the only people in the main street are manning a huge and garish funfair which is spread out throughout its length, only that’s closed too. More polite assurances of not voting, and a couple who didn’t seem to know there is an election on. Two women recall getting a lot of stuff from the LibDems, and that alone seems to have swayed them.
“This election is nasty. Politics shouldn’t be like this.”
Out of the town centre, party rivalry is said to be muck and bullets. Labour canvassers claim there is little sign of LibDem support and they are cautiously optimistic, but expect it to be close. There is talk of the don’t-knows waiting to decide on the day what is the smart tactical vote. One voter suggested a last-minute poll or even an announcement of the bookies’ favourite would settle it.
The general disillusionment is best summed up by one woman who declared: “This election is nasty. Politics shouldn’t be like this.” There is no doubting voters’ desire for something with more integrity and dignity. For this reason, Labour’s conference last week was probably their most important in years. An audience beyond the party actually listened to what was said, but has Labour done enough to convince them?
A Survation poll of the constituency a month ago concluded: “The polling shows that the Liberal Democrats have done a slightly better job so far in attracting 2019 Conservative voters than has Labour, however the party has the challenge of coming from a smaller base of prior support – just 13% of Mid Beds voted LibDem in 2019, compared to 22% voting Labour.”
It will all depend on how many Tories stay at home
Their advice to tactical voters was that, with Labour and Tories neck-and-neck at 29% apiece and the LibDems seven points behind, “a tactical Labour vote looks more sensible to beat the Tories”.
A few days before the election, there is nothing to be seen of the Tories. But the result will probably depend on how many of their voters stay at home. Both Labour and LibDems are looking for momentum, but there is no sign of it. So turn-out will choose the winner. As several interviewees suggested, it could be that many will make up their minds on the last day; though many may simply decide they can’t be bothered.
A recent poll of Conservative voters, this time by Redfield and Wilton, finds that if they are to lose faith in their party then by far the biggest group, 42%, won’t vote for anybody else: 20% would choose Labour and 17% LibDems. So, what price momentum?
A guess? It could be a three-way fight on a poor turn-out, with Labour a more likely winner than the LibDems.
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