Can Gen Kitchen begin the dismantling of Conservative rule in Northamptonshire?
With a by-election in Wellingborough on the horizon, the Labour candidate could find herself sitting on the House of Commons green benches sooner than anyone thought
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By Sarah Ward
It’s been eight years since Northamptonshire had a Labour MP. Corby MP Andy Sawford was defeated at the 2015 general election by Tom Pursglove and since then the Tories have held all the political power in Northants. The two unitary councils are both run by the Conservatives and the politically elected police, fire and crime commissioner is from the same party.
At the most recent general election in 2019, the seven victorious Tory MPs collectively gained 216,229 votes, more than double the 106,611 given to Labour. The Liberals and the Greens were even further behind.
But since then political times have obviously changed and Labour is 20 points ahead in the polls after a series of disastrous years for the Tories. The Covid enquiry is revealing the chaos in government at the time of the 2020 national crisis and the failings of then prime minister Boris Johnson and his successors have not fared much better; Liz Truss damaging the economy with her maverick financial policy and Rishi Sunak failing to deliver on the immigration policies promised to supporters.
With a majority of 18,076, Peter Bone’s seat in Wellingborough and Rushden had appeared one of the safest in the county. (Only Andrea Leadsom in South Northants and Daventry’s Chris Heaton-Harris have larger majorities). But his recent suspension from parliament following a damning report by the parliamentary standards committee which found he had indecently exposed himself to and bullied a young male staffer, has no doubt damaged his reputation.
Today the recall petition, sparked by his suspension, closes at 5pm and if 7,904 or more constituents have signed it, he will be removed as the MP. It is expected, after informing the speaker of the House of Commons, North Northamptonshire Council, which has been organising the petition, will announce the result tomorrow.
There’s nothing in the rules to stop Bone standing again, either as a Tory, an independent or perhaps for another party, and the Tory faithful in the area have been tight lipped on what may happen. Bone has denied a story from the Sunday Times that he had asked for his partner Helen Harrison to be given the candidacy and the Tory leader of the North unitary Jason Smithers has refused to answer questions about whether he will put himself forward in the possible by-election.
Scenting political blood following the by-election successes in Mid Bedfordshire and Tamworth, Labour is throwing all its resources behind its candidate Gen Kitchen. It has decamped its entire East Midlands operation to the town, renting out a town centre office and wrapping it in party colours and with images of Gen Kitchen’s face.
There has also been a steady stream of Labour party frontbenchers to the town. Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves, women and equalities shadow minister Anneliese Dodds, shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson and shadow climate change minister Ed Milliband have all visited to give Gen Kitchen’s campaign support and Keir Starmer visited the county last week.
The possible by-election (rumours are it will be February if it happens) has meant that as the Wellingborough candidate, Gen Kitchen has leapfrogged the other Labour hopefuls who had already been selected in seats that had appeared more winnable. Lee Barron was selected for the Corby candidacy, Lucy Rigby will take on Michael Ellis in Northampton North, Mike Reader in Northampton South and Rosie Wrighting will try to win Kettering. The Party will decide on its candidates for Daventry and South Northants soon.
Yet despite being the most recent selection, Gen Kitchen is the only one of the candidates who fought for a Northants seat in the 2019 election. Of the 106,611 votes won by Labour, she gained 13,994 of them when she went up against long standing MP Andrea Leadsom in the South Northamptonshire constituency, gaining 20 percent of the vote share.
NN Journal spoke with Gen Kitchen last week at the Victoria Centre in Wellingborough for a strictly timed twelve minute interview (her media manager said she had some doors to knock).
Here’s some of what she had from the handful of questions we were allowed to ask:
On knife crime
“You can’t change it overnight but it’s something I’ve faced before and will do it again. When I was a Labour councillor in London there was unfortunately a young man who was stabbed in 2019 and one of the things I did was not only work with the police but the community and with third sector organisations to secure funding to teach teenagers the consequence of knives and also ensure the community felt safe. That was CCTV cameras so the alleyway the stabbing happened in felt brighter and working with the council to make sure their repairs and maintenance was better. It’s a multi agency approach and as the MP you can be the figurehead of that campaign.”
On the NHS
“The main part of the pledge on the NHS is an urgent care centre at Isebrook. I know you’ve probably heard this from the opposition before and what I want to make clear is that if there is a Labour government in six months or a year, that Wes Streeting has seen what we have got here.”
On making sure Wellingborough does well under a Labour government
“Not every MP will have had a by-election, will not have had Rachel Reeves walking down the high street, they won’t have had Wes Street in the new year, they won’t have had Ed Millband already here. We are making the ground work here in this campaign to really fight for Wellingborough, so should there be a general election, they have already been and they already know where I am, so I don’t get lost in the noise.”
“I don’t think the Conservatives have been doing their job here - both locally and nationally. I think it is up to me and Labour to show that if you have someone with a little bit of vision, a little bit of fight and determination that we can ensure we don’t miss out.”
On meeting with constituents
“Yes, I will pledge to have a surgery. I had them as a councillor and I will have them again - it’s what Fridays are for.”
On Wellingborough’s potential with herself as its MP
“I want Wellingborough to rival Gloucester and Cheltenham, the Cotswolds. We have got some incredible villages, we have the incredible Waendel Walk. We have all the parts there, we just need someone to shape it and give it some pride.
“When you go around Wellingborough and speak to people they say ‘People used to come here on holiday and they don’t anymore’. We don’t have a market now, it is shocking we are an historic market town and we don’t have one. In Rushden there are some areas we should be celebrating and banging the drum for it.”
Ana Savage Gunn is the Liberal Democrat candidate and the Green Party is yet to announce its candidate.