Labor has regained Wakefield from the Conservatives in a byelection triggered after a Tory MP was imprisoned for sexually abusing a 15-year-old boy.
The new Labor MP, Simon Lightwood, is an NHS communications executive who used to work for the previous Labor MP. Lightwood won with 13,166 votes, a majority of 4,921 and 48% of ballots cast. He was 18 percentage points ahead of the Tories’ Nadeem Ahmed, who came in second with 8,241 votes.
Lightwood spent the short campaign repeatedly telling voters it was their chance to “boot Boris out of Downing Street”. He used his victory speech to address the prime minister, saying: “Your contempt for this country is no longer tolerated.”
Though it was a terrible night for the Conservatives, also losing Tiverton and Honiton to the Liberal Democrats, Johnson still retains a 73-seat working majority.
But the Wakefield result has major symbolic value for the Labor leader, Keir Starmer, to show the party is making progress in “red wall” seats won by the Conservatives in 2019.
Starmer said it showed that Labor was “back on the side of working people, winning seats where we lost before, and ready for government”.
Keenly aware that if Labor didn’t win the seat back then a leadership challenge would follow, Starmer had ordered the party to throw everything at Wakefield. He three times and ordered his shadow cabinet visited to follow suit.
Campaigners flooded the seat from across the UK, amid reports the party was short of local canvassers after some of the Wakefield constituency party executive resigned in protest after a popular local councilor failed to make the candidate shortlist. Though Lightwood made a big play of having gone to university in Wakefield and bought his first house there, he lives with his husband in Calderdale on the other side of West Yorkshire and is originally from South Shields in the north-east.
David Pickersgill, a Labor councilor in Wakefield, insisted local members had rallied around Lightwood. “Those who resigned from the office (not from the Party) still asked people to vote Labour. About 10 people from that group have not campaigned. Fifty or 60 other members (including a number from that Executive) have campaigned and worked bloody hard for a @UKLabour MP and future Govt,” he tweeted on Thursday night after polls closed.
In interviews during the campaign, Lightwood talked about growing up in poverty. “I know what people are going through in this cost of living crisis. After our childhood home was repossessed, I shared a bedroom with my nan, my aunt and my sister,” he tweeted.
Local councilor Nadeem Ahmed, the Conservative candidate, received rather less support from Tory party HQ, which was preoccupied trying to defend its 24,000 majority in the byelection on the same day in Tiverton and Honiton in Devon. Boris Johnson canceled his trip to Wakefield last Friday to visit President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Kyiv instead.
An amiable former teacher who claimed to read the Guardian, Ahmed was group leader of Wakefield Conservatives until last year when he was ousted in a vote of no confidence.
He got himself into a muddle during the campaign when trying to explain to a reporter why he should not be punished for the sins of the former MP, Imran Ahmad Khan. He said voters should still vote for the Conservatives in Wakefield as “we still trust GPs” after Harold Shipman killed 250 people.
Though often described as a typical “red wall” seat, Wakefield has been marginal for 20 years. Mary Creagh, elected for Labor in 2005 on a majority of just over 5,000, managed to hang on until 2019 when she was ousted by Khan, who won by 3,358 votes. A passionate European who once said she would be “a remainer until I die”, Creagh found herself out of step with many constituents in a seat that voted 66.4% to leave the EU.
This time around, an independent candidate, Akef Akbar, came third with 2,090 votes. He was elected as a Conservative councilor in Wakefield last year but resigned in protest at the whipping system in March. The Yorkshire Party came fourth with 1,182. The Green Party was fifth on 587, Reform UK was sixth with 513 and the Liberal Democrats seventh on 508.