July 18, 2023

It’s a rainy Saturday afternoon in North Yorkshire, and Rishi Sunak is trying to reassure the North Yorkshire Conservative Association gathered on his front lawn that all is not lost. Sheltered under a marquee, he’s like a cruise-ship crooner entertaining a ballroom full of pensioners: “Time is on our side,” he says to his audience, alluding to the discord beyond the rolling hills of Northallerton. “Eighteen months is a long time to turn things around.” After few words of reassurance, the raffle is announced with a sense of relief. A full 13 years of Tory rule have passed, and, amid the boozy, forgetful haze of the slow afternoon, the Sunaks’ garden party is mourning the decline of the modern British Conservative Party.

The by-election in Selby and Ainsty, 50 miles south of Sunak’s estate, is part of the reason why. Mention it to the attendees and they grimace. On Thursday, Labour will have a chance to overturn a 20,000 majority and lay the first meaningful stone in the path to a Tory electoral apocalypse. Two weeks ago, the race was compared to a coin toss. But since then, a great pilgrimage of shadow ministers and Labour activists has flooded the Yorkshire town, hoping to pull off the second-largest swing to Labour in electoral history. This would be the sort of decisive victory not seen in Selby since the days of the English Civil War, when a Royalist rout spelled the end of King Charles I’s rule in the North. The bookies now have them as favourites to win.

Selby, however, as both Labour and Conservative canvassers confess, is a “weird constituency”. It takes in pockets of poverty and comfortable Country Life villages. It is an area of contrasts and contradictions: a beautiful Norman Abbey within a stone’s throw of a high street garlanded with vape shops; a commuter belt to Leeds and York in the former industrial heartland once home to the most productive coal mine in Europe. A place where three-quarters of homes are owner-occupied, but the housing shortage and mortgage-rate crisis now make home ownership both untenable and undesirable. A place where you can find all of England’s problems and convince no one of their solutions.

For both parties, this is not just a by-election, but a chance to war game electoral machines for 2024. Labour see it as a zone of reckoning for a country fed up with Tory rule, and a chance to lay the ghost of Jeremy Corbyn to rest after their vote dropped here by 9.6% in 2019. The local Tory wisdom — and ready defence — is that if they lose the seat, it will be because their vote stays at home. But outside of the two major parties, Selby is also a place where we can observe, in the form of political rebels and strays, the two unresolved forces of British electoral politics: the disbelief in the power of politics to change things, and a hatred of Westminster.

Nothing sums up the latter like the circumstances which led to the by-election. The stroppy resignation of Nigel Adams — a Johnson lackey who departed after failing to get a peerage — “has pissed everyone off”, as one Tory put it. The constituents aren’t impressed either. “Good riddance, you shocking grifter,” read one of the kinder comments on a farewell post. The legacy of Adams, further tainted by his temporal association with the other more sleaze-orientated by-elections, has only contributed to a broad cynicism towards Westminster. Adams himself is now regarded as a political morality tale in the pubs of Selby: the local lad who went to London and got lost in its web in his pursuit of patronage.

The Conservative candidate, lawyer and councillor Claire Holmes, seems eager to bridge that gap by talking up her “local connections”. But she already appears to have misread the mood of the constituency on housing.  There’s only so much she can say about the mortgage woes other than repeating the promise to cut inflation, but her pledge to protect “green spaces from inappropriate housing” was regarded as tone deaf in a constituency that can no longer rely on Nimbyism to form a winning coalition of voters. It was this comment that spurred a number of younger local Tories to abandon her campaign — “the sort of lazy politics that will stop anyone under 50 from voting for us”, as one senior councillor put it.

By contrast, Labour has seized upon housing in their campaign. Speaking in the Commons last week, Keir Starmer pointedly raised the case of a police officer from Selby forced to sell his home due to rising mortgage costs. And mortgage deals are coming to an end across the area as repayments rise by up to £400 a month. At the age of 25, the Labour candidate Keir Mather might seem perfectly positioned to court young voters stuck in the area and unable to get on the housing ladder. But — Oxford to public-affairs consultant via the office of Wes Streeting — he delivers his campaign video with the robotic flair of a sixth-former running for headboy. When I walk into his campaign office in the centre of the high street, full of students and the odd flat-capped local, Mather is whisked away into a backroom the moment I mention the word “interview”. It’s not hard to understand why. He is most effective when saying nothing and grinning weakly in front of a giant portable screen that reads: Conservative Mortgage Bombshell.

Both candidates are accurate personifications of their parties: the Tories’ an unimaginative clone; Labour’s an anodyne silhouette. Where they are concerned, the belief that “nothing will change” persists. But then there’s the array of political eccentrics who always come out of the woodwork for a by-election. Nick Palmer is one archetypal centrist dad who has gone rogue in the terraced suburbs of Selby. He is the closest thing Yorkshire may ever get to Michael Douglas’s character in Falling Down. Striding from a delayed train into Selby, the independent candidate looks and speaks like he’s just had to sit through an entire series of Question Time. Armed with a clipboard with his LinkedIn handle scrawled in black Sharpie, Nick preaches a message of democratic breakdown and a system of “shit processes” from London, carried out by people “scared to have a conversation with people who’ll tell them to piss off”.

He nonetheless emerges as a canny soothsayer for the town’s misery. In a busy cafe near the station, he finds common ground with the clientele sipping cappuccinos as they gleefully watch a set of passing canvassers getting drenched in the rain. A clear “90% of the people who come in here won’t vote”, the cafe owner tells us. “Modern politicians have no power or control over the real decisions,” adds her husband. “So what’s the point?” 

One of the more coherent protest votes against Westminster comes from a former Conservative councillor now standing to establish a Yorkshire Parliament: Mike Jordan of the Yorkshire Party. Does he have anything more profound to say? “He’s more likely to say something profoundly fucking stupid,” a Tory member retorts. Behind this sentiment, however, is a quiet frustration. Jordan will be lucky to come fourth, but he represents a disgruntled Tory demographic. In a narrow race, the regionalist-populist energy he can attract and possibly harness is a potent minority view — one that Labour and the Tories cannot ignore.

The rosy-faced Yorkshireman tells me about his adventures in the Tory heartlands to the north of the constituency to garner interest in his vision for Yorkshire. “I spoke to one lady,” he tells me with relish, “who says this is the first time in 50 years she won’t vote Tory. She’s going to vote for me and Yorkshire instead.” When he took to the stage of the hustings, it took him only 30 seconds to deliver his message: “Voting for me is a chance to send a message to Westminster that Yorkshire needs to be thought about — and what are you gonna do about that, cock?” 

It’s a straightforward message delivered in straightforward Yorkshire, but tellingly it’s being redeployed by both parties as a means to cut through the apathy. “No one on the doorstep is interested in what’s happening in Westminster,” says former policeman now Tory councillor Tim Grogan, fresh from campaigning in the key battlegrounds to the south of Selby. And taking power and money away from Westminster is about the only thing the Conservative Party has left to talk about up here, a localist stance that puts them in a strange alliance with Jordan. A new devolution deal has just been signed that will bring an elected Metro Mayor to York and North Yorkshire, in charge of £540 million in grants. But the push for more local power feels symbolic. It can’t stymie the disgruntled energy that drove Brexit — and which is now starting to turn its gaze towards Westminster in another effort to “take back control”.

We’re far from the Red Wall, but 60% of people here voted Leave. They feel the democratic deficit all too keenly. And nationally, Labour has tried to address this discontent, too, with their Gordon Brown-drafted “New Britain” constitution that promises a “radical devolution of power”, to “unleash the potential that exists everywhere in this country”. It is seen as one of the key components of Starmer’s reforming project, should he seize power. And much of the document reads like a Yorkshire Party rant condensed into polished policy prose. The irony with this, of course, is that this is likely to create more, not less, of the politics and politicians that everyone in Selby and Ainsty seems to hate.

Regionalism has frequently, and frequently lazily, been proffered to restore the discontented provinces to political equanimity. But devolution was overwhelmingly rejected by the North East in 2004; it’s hard to see that a Yorkshire “parliament” of Mike Jordans would satisfy Selby. One woman looks appalled when I suggest it. “The idea of some of the local politicians getting their hands on more power around here,” she says, standing outside Selby Abbey, “is, quite frankly, terrifying.” Whatever happens on Thursday, this mood is here to stay — a disquiet that all these candidates want to exploit, and none can bear to resolve.