·Political Correspondent – Yahoo News UK
Sat, 7 May 2022, 10:49 am
Yahoo News UK visits Bury to watch the local election fallout and finds voters are united on one thing – they don’t much like Westminster politics right now.
In Bury Market it’s hard to find anyone who trusts Boris Johnson, whether they vote Conservative or not.
But it’s just as difficult to find anyone with something positive to say about Keir Starmer – or, at times, find someone who knows who he is.
In fact, the overwhelming feeling is that people have had enough. “Westminster think we’re all morons,” says one person.
The town has become a key election battleground after the Conservatives won both seats – Bury North and Bury South – in the 2019 election, which saw Johnson punch hole after hole in Labour’s so-called ‘Red Wall’.
But the winning margins were among the tightest in the country: James Daly took Bury North by just 105 votes, and Christian Wakeford, who has since defected to Labour citing the government’s approach to the cost-of-living crisis and Partygate, was victorious by 402.
Starmer and Johnson have both visited Bury recently in the hope of seizing momentum – Rishi Sunak, too. “We didn’t like it when Rishi called our market ‘Burnley market’,” says one local after the chancellor made a faux pas during his visit.
And while many local elections are fought often on local issues, such as potholes or council tax, this time it seems the crunch talking points have been national – such as Partygate, honesty in politics and, of course, the cost-of-living crisis.
“Pensioners come to the market now to keep warm because they can’t afford their energy bills,” says Chelsea, 32, a nail technician. “Some of them are lonely, but there’s more now that buy a tea or coffee and sit inside all day. Some of them ride the buses to nearby towns all day.”
She paints a mixed picture on her perception of the leaders of the two major parties – and remains an undecided voter. It is Chelsea who feels MPs in Westminster see the people as “morons”.
“I don’t know what it is about Keir Starmer – I don’t know… I don’t think I like him,” she says.
“He seems to put an act on. But Boris Johnson – I like his charisma. He is an idiot, he makes stupid mistakes [like Partygate], but don’t we all.”
Chelsea’s colleague who works for the council at the market, James, 30, says of Partygate: “It wasn’t very fair, was it?”
But when asked what he thinks of the Labour leader, he replies: “Who’s Keir Starmer?”
“I just want normal people, a people’s government,” he adds. “None of them are normal people, they’re born with a silver spoon in their mouth.”
And this speaks directly to the wider issue facing Labour right now. People don’t trust the prime minister, but nor are they convinced by the alternative.
It’s beyond doubt that the Conservatives took a battering at the polls on Thursday.
It rapidly became clear things had gone badly by the following morning – with the prime minister met with anger from his own party after the Tories lost control of the traditional strongholds of Westminster, Wandsworth and Barnet.
By midnight on Saturday, the Conservatives had suffered almost 500 councillor defeats across England, Scotland and Wales – a disastrous result for the party.
In Bury, the Tories lost four councillors and held 12, with Labour gaining two in Bury South leaving them with 29, and local party Radcliffe First bagging eight seats. An independent candidate and the Lib Dems also secured one each.
And while they are modest gains for Labour, the party was thrilled to win Pilky Park, which is a third Jewish. “Our results in Bury show that we’re rebuilding trust with the Jewish community,” says one activist, smiling.
In Bury Market, James, a 32-year-old priest, laments the government’s lack of support for the most vulnerable over the cost of living crisis, and says Johnson lacks “integrity”. He votes Labour.
“The scary thing about the cost-of-living crisis is that a lot of it seems to be done by choice – rather than anything else,” he says. “You know, how can energy companies have record profits, and consumer spending [prices] at record prices?
On Partygate, James says he understands the pain it has caused because of funerals put on hold due to the pandemic. He adds there is still a backlog of people wanting symbolic funerals for people they could not say goodbye to properly.
“I did funerals for people who couldn’t say goodbye,” he says. “Everyone, by and large, adhered to the rules. But it doesn’t seem like the prime minister did.
“That’s difficult… it’s a character integrity thing.”
Elsewhere in the market, book keeper Gill also speaks disparagingly of the prime minister.
“Boris Johnson, right, is a bumbling fool,” says the 55-year-old, who is left-wing and thinks Labour went downhill with Blair. “[Boris Johnson’s] a liar,” she adds, “but Partygate was blown out all out of proportion.”
She voted for the Tories at the last election – despite the fact she liked Jeremy Corbyn – because Johnson promised to deliver Brexit. But on Starmer, she’s not impressed.
“I don’t like Keir Starmer,” she adds, largely because she doesn’t believe he stands for anything else. “Does he even have any policies?”
The cost-of-living crisis worries her, Gill says – mainly soaring energy bills. Like many locals, she likes the idea of a windfall tax, as long as it doesn’t deter green investment.
This year, Gill’s voting for three different candidates: Independent, Tory and Green. “But – never trust a Tory,” she quips.
At a bakery stall a few metres away, John, 53, is furious with the government. Once a lifelong Tory voter, now he’s not voting at all.
“I’ve never voted Labour in my life, I’m generally Conservative,” says the accountant-turned-baker. “But I wouldn’t vote for the Tories now. I’m not voting at all.”
“He’s a born liar,” he says of Johnson.
And, when it comes to the cost-of-living crisis, his anger spreads to the chancellor.
“I think his head’s in the clouds, isn’t it? I mean, the guy’s a multimillionaire – and so is his wife,” he says.
“So does he really care at the end of the day? That’s what I think. I question whether they actually care.
“They live in a different world to us, don’t they? You know. They’re not at ground level, so I don’t think they see what poverty is, they don’t see what hardship is. They don’t see it, do they?”
But while Johnson doesn’t seem to be popular among those in Bury Market, Labour does not emerge unscathed either.
Jeff, 73 and a lifelong Labour voter, is an admirer of Corbyn but is no fan of the party’s current leader.
“Starmer’s completely useless,” he says. “When you’ve got someone leading the Labour party that’s a ‘Sir’… come on. He doesn’t know what it’s like to worry about not having enough money.
“He’s not going to do anything if he gets in, I’ll tell you that. The best chance we had was with Corbyn.”
Despite his concerns, though, Jeff says he’s still voting Labour. “I grew up working class, on a council estate. There’s no way I’ll ever vote Tory – I’ll tell you that for free.”
As the results came in at Bury’s leisure centre, and the Conservative Party’s losses became more apparent, Tory Bury North MP Daly declined to comment. “No,” he says abruptly when asked for a comment by Yahoo News UK. “Maybe later.”
Bury South’s Wakeford, however, remained upbeat – pleased that Jewish voters were returning to Labour and that it had become “a much safer place” for them.
“The one clear message is that I’ve been vindicated,” Wakeford says. “If this is a referendum on Boris Johnson’s leadership, the people of Bury South are telling Boris Johnson: ‘Go.'”
Both Johnson and Starmer are both facing a challenging few months ahead.
Partygate, the cost-of-living crisis, and – crucially – the public’s perception of him continues to threaten Johnson’s position as prime minister, and the party’s electoral prospects. And with the Met Police’s investigation into rule-breaking in Number 10 yet to conclude, and Sue Gray’s investigation yet to be released, things could get far worse for the ‘Teflon Tory’.
But Starmer also faces an unwelcome bump in the road, after Durham police on Friday re-opened their investigation into whether he broke coronavirus laws last year after months of calling for Johnson’s resignation for the same reason.
And, while Labour made significant gains in London, elsewhere their gains were very modest, raising concerns as to whether the party is appealing to voters outside of the capital, and whether they are doing well enough to win the next general election.
Many questions remain for each party. But one thing is clear – Westminster has a lot to do to restore faith in politics again in places like Bury.