Keir Starmer on the microphone

‘He comes across as weak’: Keir Starmer fails to convince Wakefield voters | Keir Starmer

BArbara Hall was enjoying a quiet morning at her seniors group in Wakefield when word got around that a special guest would be attending. Hall, a retired shop assistant, watched Keir Starmer work in the room. “I wasn’t convinced,” she said. “He’s an awkward person, isn’t he? He doesn’t fit in. Boris Johnson would fit. He would make us scream and laugh.”

Rare is the Wakefield resident who hasn’t had to dodge a politician or a vox-popping reporter in recent weeks as anticipation mounts for Thursday’s vote. If the polls are right, Labor should regain the seat they lost to the Tories in 2019 – the first by-election win for the party since Corby in 2012.

But after an early poll gave Labor a 20-point lead, party numbers quickly dampened expectations.

“I can say categorically that we are not 20 points ahead and are fighting for every vote. The fact that we only won one by-election [rather than successfully defended a seat] in 25 years shows the magnitude of the task. It’s not a foregone conclusion that we’ll win,” said Louise Haigh, the shadow transport secretary leading Labor’s campaign.

Conventional wisdom suggests that Wakefield was meant to be a slam dunk for Labor: a by-election held when the prime minister’s approval ratings were scarcely lower, prompted by the imprisonment of incumbent MP Imran Ahmad Khan for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy .

And yet the Guardian kept hearing Johnson being described in Wakefield as “the best of bad guys”, with little mention of Khan’s proven pedophilia. One Labor MP, who has campaigned in the constituency on several occasions, said it was a “deliberate Tory strategy” to paint all MPs as corrupt and self-serving: “They realize they’re in a bind with Johnson and to get out of it, they paint him as invariably bad and camouflage us all with the same brush.”

Support worker Gary Firm, enjoying the sun with a client on Friday, highlighted Labour’s problem. “I don’t believe in any of the politicians that are out there right now,” he said. “I see Boris at the top and yes he made some mistakes. He was pretty awful at times. But overall he did good stuff. So I would support him.”

There is little love for Starmer in Wakefield, who made his third visit to the constituency on Saturday. “He’s a critic. He’s not an action person,” Hall said. Caroline Walker, an art teacher, was also unimpressed: “What do you call him? Captain Hindsight. That’s him to the tee. [He should] find something credible. But he doesn’t. He just tries all the time.”

The notion that Johnson got the “big calls” right is common. “I feel Boris Johnson has handled Covid well. I feel like if someone else had been in his position, they might not have done as well as he did,” said Ayesha Ahmed, an 18-year-old college student. She also supports Johnson expanding the right to buy public housing: “I think that’s really good because paying the rent is more than a mortgage.”

She is weighing whether to vote for Conservative candidate Nadeem Ahmed or for popular local independent Akef Akbar, who could draw from both Tory and Labor votes. He left the Tories in March after becoming the first Conservative in decades to win the normally safe labor territory of Wakefield East, a borough with a higher-than-average Asian population.

A voter in Wakefield said Keir Starmer (right) was “awkward” compared to Boris Johnson, who “would make us scream and laugh”. Photo: Dave Higgens/PA

Ahmed’s friends watch in horror as they hear her praise for Johnson. Zahrah Nadir, 17, wants “everyone but the Conservatives” to win, citing racism and the government’s immigration policies as reasons. “We’re not really stealing the jobs, are we?” she said. “And some of the comments [Johnson] made over the burqa – that is not correct.”

Teacher Sarah McGarry said she was voting Labor to try and get the Tories out. “I was personally quite a Corbyn fan, so I’m probably a little more lukewarm towards Keir Starmer. But then I have to compare it with the current [government] and the current state of the country and the fact that [the Tories] I have been in power for 12 years and in my opinion the country has gone downhill, especially in education.”

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Peter Bagshaw, who worked at Kellingley colliery, Britain’s last deep coal mine, until it closed in 2015, is expecting a Labor victory. The Tories only really won Wakefield in 2019 because of Brexit, he said. Mary Creagh, the Labor MP since 2005, was “very, very much in favor of leaving Europe. She was very much against Brexit,” he recalled.

Worked himself until 2019 when he joined the Tories, Bagshaw said he was not ready to return under Keir Starmer’s leadership. “I don’t think he’s the right person for the Labor Party. I think there’s a guy living just over the hill, Dan Jarvis [MP for Barnsley]. I think he would be a much better leader for the Labor Party. He’s more down to earth and I think he would bring back a lot of the floating voices… Keir Starmer seems weak.”

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