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Tory Party Faces Major Overhaul as Support Slides Before By-Elections

Labour is ‘cautiously optimistic’ despite a former Tory minister’s claim that anything less than 20 percent for Reform would be a sign of electoral ‘failure.’

Reform UK challenges its Tory competitor in the Wellingborough by-election, with the latest predictions favoring the Conservative Party to lose more than half of its 2019 vote share in two by-elections on the same day.

In the upcoming Wellingborough by-election, the Labour Party, led by candidate Gen Kitchen, is positioned as a strong contender to capture a traditionally Conservative seat, spurred by factors such as the controversial departure of the previous Conservative MP Peter Bone and local dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of COVID-19 and Brexit.

Reform’s candidate, former MEP and well-known businessman Ben Habib, told The Epoch Times: “To win in a first past the post system is never easy. Labour has been canvassing in Wellingborough for months and has thrown everything but the kitchen sink at their effort. But Reform UK has fought a super campaign for an insurgent party.

“There are thousands of voters disenchanted by the two main parties. Both parties stand for borrow, tax, and spend. Both parties are for open borders and net zero. Many recognize this and are angry. We need these people coming out to vote rather than voicing their disenchantment by staying at home.

“If they do, they’ll vote for Reform UK and we will be in a very good position. Ours is the only party that stands for the country and the people.”

Labour Candidate ‘Cautiously Optimistic’

Despite an existing Tory majority of 18,500, widespread sentiment against the Tory Party and favorable odds from bookmakers suggest a potential swing towards Labour. However, Ms. Kitchen herself remains cautiously optimistic, acknowledging the “worry” of overturning such a safe seat.

The latest predictive analysis by Electoral Calculus predicts the Tory vote to drop from 32,277 to just 14,766.

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Speaking during a canvassing session, Ms. Kitchen told media: “We have a good promise rate from the door knocks, we get really good responses from Facebook, but I’ve got used to losing in the Labour Party, and I’m not quite over it yet. I don’t want to be in a position where I lose by 200 votes and I think, ‘I should have done more door-knocking.’ And we’re not complacent. An 18,500 majority in anybody’s money is really difficult to overturn.”

Simultaneously, Reform UK, under the leadership of Richard Tice, is gaining traction in the constituency, which may complicate Labour’s prospects. Wellingborough’s pronounced support for Brexit—62.4 percent voted Leave—and its fundamentally conservative leanings present an opportunity for Reform UK to appeal to disaffected Conservative voters, especially given the current dissatisfaction expressed in polls on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government.

With a significant portion of Tory activists reportedly withdrawing their support for the party’s campaign efforts, this by-election could serve as a critical test for the Conservatives and an opportunity for Reform UK to make a significant electoral breakthrough.

In the traditionally safe Tory seat, the primary concern in the Tory camp appears not to be losing voters to Reform, but incentivizing Tory supporters to turn up and vote on Thursday. This predicted abstention could pave the way for Labour’s Ms. Kitchen, a candidate opposing Brexit and supporting open immigration borders, to secure a win.

Voters head to the polls in the Tory seats of Wellingborough and Kingswood on Thursday, while Labour-held Rochdale goes to the polls on Feb. 29. Kingswood is expected to swing in a similar manner, with Labour predicted to romp to victory by nearly 7,000 votes in Electoral Calculus’s latest figures.

Sir Keir Starmer campaigns with Labour's by-election candidate Gen Kitchen at AFC Rushden and Diamonds in Rushden, England, on Feb. 13, 2024. (Eddie Keogh/Getty Images)
Sir Keir Starmer campaigns with Labour’s by-election candidate Gen Kitchen at AFC Rushden and Diamonds in Rushden, England, on Feb. 13, 2024. (Eddie Keogh/Getty Images)

Tory Ex-Minister Lays Down Gauntlet to Reform

Tory grandee and former minister Sir John Hayes MP told The Express on Tuesday: “Really Reform UK’s credibility is on the line in Wellingborough. This is now a question about how much of a threat Reform UK really is. The polls put them around 9 percent but in my long experience when it comes to a general election minor parties like that always get a lower percentage.

“But Wellingborough in theory offers Reform UK the perfect set of circumstances to show whether they are a political force. It is a pro-Brexit seat, full of Conservative voters who may stay at home and could be a very low turnout. That means they should expect to get 10 percent at the very least but actually be nearer to 20 percent if their national vote is what the polls claim it to be.

“In many ways, Reform’s credibility is much more on the line than ours. Everyone at the moment appears to have low expectations for the Conservative Party but Reform UK has built up very high expectations in this seat and around the country. I think if they fail to get 20 percent or even beat us to second place then that will be a failure for them.”

Meanwhile, Labour has been handed a PR headache at an unwelcome time after the party’s Rochdale by-election candidate, Azhar Ali, was suspended over controversial remarks about Israel and Jewish people. Despite initial hesitation, Labour withdrew its support following Mr. Ali’s claim that Israel had “allowed” the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, with further comments of a similar nature prompting this action.

Starmer Bites Back Over Bad PR

On a visit to Wellingborough on Tuesday, Sir Keir Starmer claimed to have taken “decisive action” against the comments, and highlighted the significance of Labour’s move, stating, “It is a huge thing to withdraw support for a Labour candidate during a by-election.” Sir Keir will be eager to underscore his commitment to change within Labour after historical accusations of systemic anti-Semitism have plagued the party.

Electoral law forbids changes to the selected candidate after a certain date, meaning that Mr. Ali remains on the ballot as Labour’s candidate for Rochdale’s by-election at the end of February. However, he has been suspended from the party, awaiting further investigation.

Returning from an action day in the constituency on Tuesday, Mr. Tice told The Epoch Times: “There’s a lot going on by ourselves and, indeed, by the Labour Party, who seem to have thrown the whole of, frankly, the Labour Party in the southeast, as far as I can see, at Wellingborough, so they’re working very hard.

“There’s no Tory team to talk about at all. It’s hard to tell. Either there’s a lot of very shy Tories out there who are going to vote on the day without telling anybody, or their vote is going to suffer very, very badly. The truth is that it’s all gone down very badly indeed, and the thing is that the Tory brand is toxic. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Tories do not get above 20 percent vote in any of these three by-elections.”

Mr. Tice added that Reform’s Wellingborough candidate Mr. Habib is “working very hard.”

He added: “We’re working very hard. It’s really difficult to say; by-elections are hard for small parties. But we’re just doing the best we can. We will definitely get our best results ever, of that I’m sure. And beyond that, well, the more the better.”

Analysis from Electoral Calculus puts Reform on just over 7 percent of the total vote, predicting Labour to take the seat with a majority of 3,868 votes.

Quantitative political analyst at Electoral Calculus, Marwan Riach, told The Epoch Times: “If Labour are to show that they are well on their way to government, then they should comfortably take this seat. All eyes will be on who comes in second place. If Reform UK beat the Conservatives into third place then that would be a real drubbing of the governing party by the Wellingborough electorate. A strong showing by Reform UK would be a vote share of 20 percent or more, given how recent polling has played out.”

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