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17th Dec 2021

Labour gave up on North Shropshire before the by-election even began

Ava Evans

Keir Starmer looking perplexed

An ‘unofficial pact’ with the Liberal Democrats delivered a catastrophic Labour loss 

In North Shropshire, Labour have delivered a Liberal Democrat victory, by abandoning any attempt at challenging the seat. 

Nationally, controversies over Downing Street Christmas parties and Tory sleaze have played out well for Labour. A commanding campaign against MP’s second jobs and several blistering performances at Prime Minister’s Questions have seen the party surge to a nine-point lead. 

“The worst possible leader at the worst possible time”, said Sir Keir Starmer on Wednesday. So, why didn’t he challenge him on a reasonably poachable by-election?

On Thursday evening, Former Labour MEP David Hallam, who has been coordinating much of the North Shropshire campaign effort, seemed uncharacteristically dispirited. 

Wearing a red tie embroidered with a “black sheep”, Hallam said he expected a stonking defeat. Last Friday the campaign was “flying”, he says. By Monday, the positive reaction felt on the doorstep had dissipated. 

Hallam attributes much of Labour’s crushing defeat to a comment made on Sunday by Shadow Foreign Office Minister, Yasmin Quershi. 

“Well, it’s realistic,” Quershi told Times Radio. “I mean, let’s face it, Labour are never going to win North Shropshire. The Lib Dems do have an opportunity to do so.

“It’s not just soft-pedalling, I do think that in constituencies like these ones, where Labour don’t have a huge amount of resources we know, realistically, we have no chance of winning.”

Hallam claims her comments were repeated back to campaign groups on the doorstep, repeatedly. 

The lacklustre drive to secure a mere morsel of the action was arguably driven from the leader’s office. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer failed to visit the constituency, even after Boris Johnson spent an entire afternoon with his candidate. Press were not informed about visits from the Deputy Leader Angela Rayner and Labour Chair Anneliese Dodds, meaning the trips received little coverage and had next to no effect on incentivising voters.  

The loss threatens to destabilise Sir Keir’s tenuous hold on power. One Labour MP described the loss as a “humiliating defeat” on a “seat that was well within reach”. On claims there was an “unofficial pact” with the Liberal Democrats, they said: “Keir dropped the ball before the match was set”. 

On Tuesday, Labour saved Boris Johnson from a potentially humiliating commons defeat, by voting through his “Plan B” health measures. The same Labour MP said: “we absolutely should have supported the Tories on public health policies, but backing the Lib Dems in a by-election? That was never on the table”. 

In her acceptance speech, the newly triumphant North Shropshire MP, Helen Morgan thanked Labour voters for “lending their votes to the Liberal Democrats.”

The defeat will do little to boost morale in Westminster. On the night of the election, a senior Labour advisor told PoliticsJOE they were pleased candidate Ben Wood had the potential to perform so poorly he’d lose his deposit. Hoping it would send a clear message to Sir Keir to “try some opposition.”

By midnight of by-election night, Labour campaigners had given up. One staffer said “this election was never about Labour, it was never within reach for us”, neglecting to mention it was Labour who came second to previous MP Owen Paterson in the 2019 general election, and not today’s winners, the Liberal Democrats.

While Labour have stormed ahead in national polls, they cannot win seats by relying on Tory failures alone. 

We won’t know if Labour could have triumphed in North Shropshire but it’s clear they didn’t really try.