Residents in the London constituency of Old Bexley and Sidcup will take to the polls on Thursday, in the first electoral test for the ruling UK Conservative party following weeks of negative headlines over sleaze allegations.
The by-election, triggered by the death of Conservative MP James Brokenshire, has prompted the arrival of dozens of senior Tories who have taken to the streets to pitch their party’s case to voters.
Prime minister Boris Johnson has this month faced intense criticism after the revelations that several of the government’s Tory backbenchers earned millions in additional income from second jobs, and concerns surrounding changes to social care reforms and cut backs to the HS2 rail project.
Although Labour has never won the constituency since its creation in 1983, Labour candidate Daniel Francis hopes that growing scepticism over the government’s national performance will be enough to persuade staunch Tory voters to abandon the party at a local level.
Brokenshire, who died in October after suffering from lung cancer, had represented the seat since 2010 and held prominent cabinet positions, including Northern Ireland secretary, under two prime ministers.
“James was the most amazing man and MP, he was absolutely adored and it is a huge loss to the community,” said local resident Paula Dole.
The 52-year-old told the Financial Times that many within the area had huge loyalty towards Brokenshire due to his proactive engagement with voters. In the 2019 general election, the late MP gained almost 30,000 votes within the Tory stronghold, nearly three times the number obtained by his Labour challenger.
But that loyalty will not necessarily extend to the Conservative party as a whole, Dole warned. “Boris [Johnson] should be nervous,” she said. “I don’t think the Tories have a such a firm stronghold here any more.”
A YouGov poll from November 22 showed that 64 per cent of Britons surveyed believe Johnson is doing badly as prime minister.
“I wish the government would just carry out what they promised voters they would do,” one resident who asked to remain anonymous told the FT.
“We are getting an awful lot of Conservative voters who are not happy,” observed Simone Reynolds, the Liberal Democrat candidate for the constituency. “We are also finding a lot of undecideds on the doorsteps.”
Reynolds, who has worked within the health sector for more than 20 years and has two children at local state schools, is keen to act as a “strong voice for local families” and the most vulnerable residents.
She added: “We do have quite an elderly population in the constituency as well and they are not happy with the government’s taking away of the triple lock . . . I think some of the older Conservative voters are now thinking twice.”
The suburban constituency, located in south-east London, has historically been represented by the Conservatives, including Sir Edward Heath, who served as Tory prime minister between 1970 and 1974.
“Old Bexley and Sidcup may technically be in London geographically but politically it is a world away,” Sir John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde university, explained. “This is an area which voted 63 per cent to leave in the Brexit referendum.”
According to statistics from the London Borough of Bexley, which encompasses both Sidcup and Bexley, the area is home to about 250,000 residents, with under-25s accounting for nearly one-third of the population, while the percentage of residents aged over 65 is also on the rise.
The Conservatives have put forward Louie French to represent the seat. French, who served as deputy leader of Bexley council and works in financial services in the City, grew up locally in Welling and Sidcup.
In a move designed to separate himself from the increasingly politically toxic issue of sleaze and second jobs, French recently promised that he would step down from his City role if elected next week.
“As the campaign has gone on we have heard more and more from people on how upset they are with the government around sleaze and MPs taking second jobs,” Labour’s Francis told the FT. “We are certainly hearing from Conservative voters, some of whom will be staying at home and some of whom will be voting Labour next week.”
For resident Audrey Johnson, the events of the past few weeks have illustrated the difference in character between the two party leaders.
“I am a Labour member and I will be voting Labour,” said Johnson. “Keir Starmer is excellent and he is truthful and not a liar like Boris,” the 74-year-old said.
Francis, a former councillor who grew up in Bexley, argued constituents felt “let down” by the Conservative-led council, as well as by the government, citing the six-week bin strike during the summer among other disruptions.
“While no one knows what the outcome will ultimately be, a Tory hold with a significantly reduced majority wouldn’t be surprising,” said Anthony Wells, director of YouGov’s political and social opinion polling.
Voter turnout on Thursday is a great concern for both parties but particularly for the Tories, Wells argued, noting it could be a lower turnout than usual.
“Getting the public enthused about the Conservatives at this point in the election cycle will be tricky,” he said. “[They] are now approaching the midterm of their leadership and we have returned to politics as usual.”
For some residents, the unfolding controversies over second jobs and the increasingly divisive nature of political discourse has prompted them to disengage with the election, despite the best efforts of candidates of all persuasions.
“I don’t pay too much attention to politics in general,” resident Amod Mathur said. “I keep politics at an arm’s length”, added 24-year-old Aston Craddock. “A lot of the things I hear infuriate me.”