Stewart Jackson was MP for Peterborough from 20015-2017, is a former President of Peterborough Conservative Association and is a Peterborough resident.
So the battle for Peterborough has begun, with the Parliamentary by-election fixed for Thursday 6th June: D Day. It will be an historic event – the first Parliamentary election triggered by a recall petition arising from the Recall of MPs Act 2015, following the conviction of Fiona Onasanya for perverting the course of justice, the second Labour MP to fall foul of a law court in the last 20 years.
Soon, Conservative MPs and other party activists will be implored to travel to the city to help out our candidate, Paul Bristow – who, as it happens, is a proper dedicated Brexiteer, having been a borough organiser for Vote Leave in London in 2016. Paul is a local, however, having been brought up in nearby Whittlesey, and is a former Chairman of Peterborough YCs. He has pledged to campaign on our 2017 manifesto, not the Prime Minister’s substandard Withdrawal Agreement “deal.”
As the MP for the city seat for twelve years between 2005 and 2017, I suppose I am as good a guide as anyone to the constituency, local issues and the campaign ahead.
Perversely, having secured the second best vote share increase of any defeated Conservative MP and polling almost 47 per cent of the vote, plus recording the highest Tory vote since 1992, I did none the less lose! This was partly a function of my or our own (slight) complacency, but mainly a consequence of the antipathy of the significant BME population, and of previous blue collar UKIP voters returning in high numbers to their ancestral Labour home, having been promised that the party would honour the referendum result…and of course, of the lamentable Conservative national campaign.
However, Peterborough is still a viable prospect for a Conservative gain – or indeed a strong Brexit Party challenge or even a Labour hold. Brexit will dominate the hustings, since the city voted 61 per cent to Leave. It’s no longer the Middle England bellweather seat it once was during the 1960s and 1970s, when it was a much more divided Town v Country constituency, holding the record in 1966 for the smallest Commons majority for Sir Harmar Nicholls – three votes after seven recounts!
Twice since it has gone with a party that didn’t form the government (in 2005 and in 2017). Casual observers will have assumed from last week’s local election results that the Conservative Party fared badly – but it wasn’t so. Although we lost overall control of the city council, the losses were in North West Cambridgeshire. In Peterborough, we actually outpolled Labour in the cumulative popular vote and swopped one council gain for one loss. The seat is almost wholly urban with just one rural ward east of the city centre.
Historically, Labour have underperformed in the city, and only in one year (1997) have they achieved more than 50 per cent of the vote. Their council group as little as ten years ago was down to low single figures.
The constituency is made up of twelve wards (two thirds of the Peterborough City Council area) on the north bank of the River Nene, at the heart of which is the medieval magnificence of Peterborough Cathedral. Every January, the Spanish Ambassador travels to the city to lay a pomegranate wreath on the tomb of both an English and Spanish Queen – Katherine of Aragon. It’s a regional hub with good train and road links and so there’s no excuse not to pay a visit….
Peterborough doesn’t look much like a Tory seat. It has a few pleasant suburbs and some rural hinterland, but the four or five wards in central Peterborough are a tough landscape for Conservatives. It is much poorer, less healthy and more unskilled than most Conservative constituencies, and has a big black and minority ethnic population – mainly Pakistani diaspora as well as several thousand Eastern European economic migrants exercising their free movement rights.
Indeed, it has fewer White British residents than Huddersfield, Leicester West, Derby South and Dewsbury – all solid or safe Labour seats. Employment is in warehousing, retail, logistics and food processing and packaging. It was one of only two urban areas (the other being Swindon) which never achieved the aspiration of establishing its own bespoke university, although Peterborough now has a satellite campus of Anglia Ruskin University.
That said, we have low unemployment and falling welfare dependency. The city centre has been rejuvenated in recent years and we have some of the finest open spaces of any British city, a legacy of Harold Wilson’s New Towns policy and Peterborough Development Corporation. Peterborough is home to Thomas Cook, Perkins Engines and the Meerkat (i.e. BGL Insurance) was born in the city.
Big local issues, as in other urban areas, are housing and education. Peterborough’s primary school results are terrible, and have been for many years. This is a problem that has proven intractable, not least because of the proliferation of academies which have yet to drive major improvements, but nevertheless blur the lines of accountability and make strategic coordination by the City Council extremely challenging.
In addition, mass EU migration and other demographic challenges have a big impact: seven in ten primary school children in the constituency don’t speak English as their first language, and that is a tough nut to crack for even the most inspiring educational leaders. Crime and in particular drugs-related offences and county lines are ever present as policing issues.
Undoubtedly, the by-election will be the scene of one of the most exciting electoral contests since the war. We’re used to rough and tumble, having been electing MPs to the Commons since 1542. In 1906, one candidate for that year’s general election had their carriage set alight by opponents and, in 1970, Harmar Nichols knocked out a trades union shop steward at a lively outdoor hustings at an engineering plant.
It just may be as exciting in the run-up to polling day this year too.