A postcard from the Leicester South by-election

By Michael Dugher

Last week Ed Balls launched Labour’s by-election campaign in Leicester South. He did so from the same spot at De Montfort university where Nick Clegg, a year ago during the general election, restated his opposition to tuition fees and said that the Lib Dems had “real momentum…particularly with young voters”.  He went onto pose the question: “Who do you trust to deliver the change and fairness you want”?  If a week is a long time in politics, the last year feels like an eternity.

The Leicester South by-election was caused by the resignation of the sitting Labour MP, the respected and popular Sir Peter Soulsby, who will contest the first ever mayoral election in Leicester. For the small but dedicated group of Labour staff, this will be their third by-election in less than six months. Some of the hard-working organisers have barely had enough time to wash their smalls since leaving Barnsley.

But Barnsley Central is a very different type of constituency to Leicester South.  Barnsley Central is a traditional Labour heartland seat, a stronghold that Labour has held without interruption since the inter-war years.

Leicester South, on the other hand, is a city seat that has changed hands on a number of significant occasions. In February 1974, the Conservatives won the seat with a 1,700 majority. Eight months later, Labour took it back with a 1,300 majority. When the Tories were riding high under Mrs Thatcher in 1983, Leicester South again narrowly elected a Conservative MP, with a majority of seven. Despite big majorities for Labour in the 1990s and in 2001, in the immediate aftermath of the Iraq war in 2004, Leicester South was the scene of a major by-election win for the Lib Dems, as they took the seat with a majority of over 1,600. At the subsequent general election in 2005, Labour regained the constituency with a majority of more than three thousand.

The demographics of Leicester South are also very different to Barnsley. Nick Clegg chose the seat a year ago to talk about his opposition to tuition fees because the constituency contains both the city’s universities. A year later, Ed Balls used the location to accuse Clegg of “a great betrayal”. But as well as having a large student population, with many choosing to stay on and work in the city after leaving university, Leicester South is incredibly diverse. It covers leafy suburbs such as Stoneygate and Knighton, inner city areas with a strong Asian community, and deprived outer estates such as Saffron and Eyres Monsell.

Labour has gone into the last three by-elections with strong candidates from different backgrounds. In Oldham East and Saddleworth, Labour ran Debbie Abrahams, a formidable local woman who worked in the national health service. In Barnsley Central, Labour’s candidate was the decorated army veteran, Dan Jarvis.   In Leicester, local members selected Jon Ashworth who, although not a Leicester man, is a longstanding east midlands resident and someone with massive political experience. Ashworth knows his way around the corridors of power and, if elected, will be a strong voice for Leicester South in Westminster.

Earlier this year, Andrew Neil produced an interesting documentary for the BBC called Posh and Posher about the people we elect to parliament. In it, he rightly highlighted the astonishing fact that of the 119 ministers in the coalition government, ten per cent of them went to one public school – Eton. Additionally he revealed that two-thirds were privately educated, as opposed to seven per cent of the population as a whole. To balance his programme, Andrew Neil also turned his attention to the Labour benches, commenting on the number of former special advisers (or “spads”) who are MPs. Although there are a number of former advisers in Parliament, not least Ed Miliband and Ed Balls, the number for former spads elected to the PLP in 2010 (me included) accounted for only a handful. There are at least as many former trade union officials in Labour’s new intake, far more with a local government background, as well as people from a range of backgrounds – from journalism to law, from public services to business.

Andrew Neil commented that many of the Labour MPs who had previously worked as advisers were Oxbridge-educated, the impression being that if the Tories were “posher”, then Labour’s intake was certainly a bit “posh”.  But the truth is that many of the former advisers and other new Labour MPs in 2010 are basically working class kids who went into Labour politics. For instance, the new MP for Wolverhampton North East, Emma Reynolds, is an Oxford-educated former spad, but she was brought up by a single mum in a Wolverhampton council house and went to a comprehensive school. Rachel Reeves, the new MP for Leeds West, also went to Oxford, but she too did so after attending an ordinary comprehensive. Gloria De Piero may have been on the telly as the star political reporter of GMTV before the election, but her first class honours at university was obtained after attending a further education college and growing up in a council house in Bradford with her immigrant parents.

Similarly, Jon Ashworth, although now a top-level politician, was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth. His parents were from what might be called the “modern working class”.  His mother worked as a cleaner and a barmaid, his father was a low-paid worker in the service sector. Ashworth’s route to one of the top universities (Durham) was via Bury FE college. He may not have “walked with kings” (just a chancellor and a prime minister), but, in the words of Kipling, he has never lost “the common touch”.  He is someone who is in politics for the right reasons – to see people from similarly less-well-off backgrounds get on and do well in life.

When the Liberal Democrats won the last by-election in Leicester South in 2004, the victory was described by some Lib Dems as a “breakthrough moment”. The then party leader Charles Kennedy said: “This result is not a flash in the pan…this pan is glistering and coming to the boil. More and more people are looking to the Lib Dems to provide a real alternative”. All the elections in May are a big test for the major parties. Leicester South, in particular, is a major challenge to see who can win the trust of young people, that new generation of voters. Knocking on doors last week in Leicester, I was struck by how many students were thinking of voting Labour for the very first time.

After Barnsley Central, when they finished sixth and lost their deposit, the Lib Dems are taking this by-election seriously, as are the Conservatives. Clegg has already visited the constituency, though the page-lead in the Leicester Mercury – “Anger: Tuition fees demo as DPM visits city” – is probably not coverage he wanted. If you remember how good it felt when the result from came through from the Barnsley Central by-election, you live not-too-far away from Leicester, and can spare a couple of hours, why not lend a hand?  Email jon@jonashworth.org.

Michael Dugher is Labour MP for Barnsley East and a member of the Labour’s campaign team for Leicester South.

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3 Responses to “A postcard from the Leicester South by-election”

  1. Alun says:

    For reference… results 1997-2010:

    2010: Labour 45.6, LDem 26.9, Con 21.4, BNP 3.0, Green 1.6, UKIP 1.5
    2005: Labour 39.4, LDem 30.6, Con 17.8, RUC 6.4, Green 3.3, Verdigris 1.4, SLP 0.7, Ind 0.5
    2004b: LDem 34.9, Labour 29.3, Con 19.7, RUC 12.7, SLP 0.9, six others 2.5
    2001: Labour 54.5, Con 23.0, LDem 17.2, Green 2.9, SLP 1.6, UKIP 0.8
    1997: Labour 58.0, Con 23.7, LDem 13.8, RP 2.5, SLP 1.3, ND 0.6

    Majorities before 1997:

    Leicester South: 1992 Lab 17.7, 1987 Lab 3.4, 1983 Con 0.0, 1979 Lab 3.8, 1974O Lab 2.3, 1974F Con 3.2
    Leicester South West: 1970 Con 0.3, 1967b Con 15.8, 1966 Lab 17.3, 1964 Lab 11.9, 1959 Lab 7.3, 1955 Lab 11.7, 1951 Lab 16.8, 1950 Lab 20.2
    Leicester South: 1945 Lab 2.7, 1935 Con 30.0, 1931 Con 53.6, 1929 Con 4.9, 1924 Con 20.3, 1923 Lib 15.8, 1922 Con 0.4, 1918 CoCon 54.4

  2. iain ker says:

    ‘…but she was brought up by a single mum in a Wolverhampton council house’

    ‘His mother worked as a cleaner and a barmaid’.

    ‘…growing up in a council house in Bradford with her immigrant parents’.

    ‘…after attending an ordinary comprehensive.’

    Mmmmm working class – gooooood.

    Everyone else – baaaaaad.

    What a dinosaur attitude. Give them all a George Cross because they went to the local comp.

    Irrational loathingd for anyone who went to *gasp* an English public school – the one ‘hate crime’ that Harman never quite got round to criminalising.

    TUCLabour – the party of the class warrior. Keep it up, because those attitudes will keep you in opposition. And for the good of the country (cf years 1997 -2010) that’s the best place for you to be.

  3. kevin lovett says:

    It beggars belief that you cheap labour people can still keep rolling out the same old nonsense, KIER HARDIE & RAMSEY MACDONALD would spin in their graves at the likes of TRISTAN HUNT and making out that ASHWORTH is some sort of working class hero is well obscene

    13 years of mass Immigration was no mistake , the working masses have had enough of your cheap labour lies

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