Wakefield’s disillusioned residents say it is time for political change | Politics

“Labour is definitely due a comeback now,” said Wakefield market stall owner Mohammad Javed. After coming to the area from Pakistan aged 16, he has spent the last four decades observing life in the town centre from his busy high street spot.

“I’ve seen the rise and fall of this town, I know the locals, and I’m telling you – the Tories have outstayed their welcome.”

Javed said he was not as critical of the Conservatives as many of his customers and fellow stall owners, but that he would never consider voting for them after the local Tory MP Imran Ahmad Khan was this week convicted of assaulting a 15-year-old boy in 2008. “It’s shocking and appalling,” Javed said. “Add to that the inhumane foreign policy – the announcement that asylum seekers will be sent to Rwanda for processing – and you’ve got a completely untrustworthy party.”

Like many Wakefield residents, his feelings about the former MP are tied into an overall distrust and disillusionment with those in power.

After Ahmad Khan’s resignation, the fight for the marginal red wall seat is on. It will be a significant test for the leadership of Keir Starmer, offering the possibility of the first Labour byelection win from the Tories in a decade, and a possible indication of the way the wind is blowing before May’s local elections.

Tony Murray, a lifelong Labour voter who grew up in Wakefield, gave up his membership and voted Conservative when Jeremy Corbyn became party leader. Now he says he will be going back to Labour.

“For me, Partygate did it,” he said. “I lost someone during the pandemic and I can’t abide the double standard the Tories have shown. I feel so let down.”

Cliff and Lisa Wright share Murray’s frustration, but feel Labour would not be able to address the economic challenges the local area faces. “The town is in desperate need of change and regeneration. We think the Ahmad Khan news will definitely swing sentiment to the left, but personally we’ll be sticking with the Conservatives. Let’s not let one bad apple spoil the whole barrel.”

Their daughter, Danielle Wright, who grew up in Wakefield and is a dentistry student at Newcastle University, strongly disagreed, citing Partygate and Priti Patel’s foreign policy as the main reasons. “The Tories made a mockery of the Covid rules. Those photos of Johnson and Co socialising in the middle of lockdown were a real knife in the back for the rest of us,” she said.

Cliff Wright is frustrated with the Conservative party but is not convinced by Labour’s economic policies. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Guardian

“As for Patel and the Rwanda deal, how can she be so hypocritical as to introduce rules so harsh they would prevent her own family being in the UK?”

Walking through Wakefield, it is clear this is a place trying to redefine itself after decades of post-industrial decline. Boarded-up pubs and social clubs jostle alongside brand new branches of H&M and Zara. Artisan food shops and boutiques are popping up amid dilapidated warehouses.

Michael Graham, Labour councillor for Wakefield West, believes this tension presents a real opportunity for the area. “Wakefield has been without an MP for the best part of a year,” he said, as Ahmad Khan faced legal proceedings. “And in response, its people have pulled together. They want better for their town.

“Following Ahmad Khan’s conviction, some serious questions have to be asked. And regarding the Rwanda plan, I’ve already had a handful of emails this morning from constituents describing the decision as ‘nonsensical and cruel’.”

Labour held Wakefield from the 1930s until Khan’s victory in the 2019 general election and Graham believes the shift to the right happened because people were not feeling heard, but he is optimistic over Labour’s chances of byelection victory. Without Corbyn’s leadership and after Brexit, amid a cost of living crisis, he argues Wakefield is “very winnable”.

“The cost of living crisis is a major issue for people in my constituency,” he said. “Token tax rebates aren’t enough. I went to the food bank yesterday and there were people there who had never set foot in a food bank and never thought they would have to. Wakefield deserves better.”

Graham shared stories of constituents who have been in touch outraged over the “tone deaf” decisions Tories have made in recent weeks and months, and insists these decisions have left even the most ardent of lifelong Conservative voters undecided about which way to vote.

In a quiet corner of the town centre, Howard and Linda Greensmith seem to sum up the mood in Wakefield: “This is a Labour town, filled with Labour people. On election day, everything is to play for.”