There’s only one day to go until the Peterborough by-election, which decides who will replace the former Labour MP Fiona Onasanya, and yet it’s still all to play for in this marginal seat.
Under normal circumstances, with the last Labour MP found guilty of perverting the course of justice and thrown out by her constituents, you would expect the Conservatives (who only lost by around 600 votes in the 2017 general election) to be favourites to win. But the recent rise of the Brexit party in the local and European elections means that conventional wisdom no longer applies.
The Brexit party are currently frontrunners in the race and some bookies have stopped taking bets on their candidate, Mike Greene, becoming the party’s first Westminster MP. But it remains to be seen whether the campaign methods, rallies and social media strategy which served the party so well during the EU election will be as effective here, when the party has little local campaign infrastructure, and the other political parties have been campaigning for months.
Talking to some of the residents in Peterborough this week, it’s easy to see why this race is so hard to predict.
As you would expect, a number of people in the city are still backing the two main parties in the race, either out of party loyalty, or because they like their local candidates standing this time. One man said he was supporting the Conservative party because of its reputation for protecting jobs which he still believed in. Another, told me that he had backed the seat’s last Tory candidate, Stewart Jackson in 2017, but was giving his vote to Labour this time, because he felt a change was needed in national government.
Strikingly, very few people in the centre of Peterborough brought up the ousting and conviction of the last Labour MP, Fiona Onasanya, as a reason they were voting in the election. This is perhaps best explained by the fact that she was charged and convicted some time ago. Labour activists on the ground seemed to think so, and said that the anger against Onasanya seems to have faded in recent weeks.
That said, one quarter of voters in this constituency did sign a recall petition calling for her to go, and many people today seemed to disapprove of the current crop of politicians. One local resident, Bob, told Coffee House that he had already voted for the Conservative party by postal vote, because the race in Peterborough was always between the Tories or Labour, and he wanted to keep the latter out. But even he wasn’t exactly enthused with the current batch of candidates and MPs, saying ‘they’re all the same really’.
One thing that will worry the Tory candidate Paul Bristow is the number of loyal Conservatives and former voters who seem to be backing the Brexit party in this contest. One, Cath, is still a Tory member and hopes to elect the next leader of the party, but was still voting for the Brexit party in this election, because of the way the Brexit negotiations had been handled. Tom, who could not vote in this election, as he lived just outside the constituency boundary agreed, said he had voted for the Brexit party in the EU elections, and would do so again given the chance. Elsewhere, an older gentleman who did not want to give his name, told Coffee House that he had already submitted his postal vote and hinted that he had backed Farage’s Brexit party this time, saying ‘Peterborough voted 60 per cent to Leave. That’s where I am.’
Another familiar theme in Peterborough was either apathy or complete frustration with the current Westminster system and elites, especially because of the Brexit impasse. Sitting in Queensgate shopping centre, Joe, who has lived in Peterborough for 34 years, said he had voted Leave in 2016, but that the whole thing had gone on for three years now and he was disappointed the country hadn’t left on 29 March. If he voted last time and nothing happened, what was the point of voting again now? His partner and her friend joined him at the table and agreed, saying they wouldn’t take part in this election either. They certainly won’t be the only people voting with their feet.
Speaking to people today, it’s hard not to feel that whoever wins in Peterborough tomorrow, regardless of the party they belong to, will have an uphill task winning back local residents’ trust.