Looking on grimly as Labour activists gathered to hear a victory speech from Jeremy Corbyn in Peterborough on Friday morning after the city’s byelection, Robin Parkin, a retired businessman and Brexit party supporter, said he was disgusted. “We need something new. What is the matter with people? I’m sick of the same old parties. I’m an old man but I can’t understand why young people can’t support something a little bit new and more energetic.”
The Brexit party had been tipped to take the seat, made vacant when Labour’s Fiona Onasanya was forced to stand down after a conviction for perverting the course of justice, but instead it was narrowly beaten. Labour’s candidate, Lisa Forbes, received 10,484 votes, seeing off the Brexit party’s Mike Greene by a margin of 683.
“I’m completely foxed by it,” Parkin said of the result. “Because I went to the bookies and it was six to one in favour of [the Brexit party]. The bookies don’t usually get it wrong.”
As for Labour, “I think they were very lucky,” said Carol, a Tory-voting cleaner at a local school who had stopped to watch Corbyn. “Because I think the Brexit party has only been together for a few weeks and they only narrowly beat them.”
Samuel Sweek, 25, a Labour councillor in neighbouring Huntingdon who used to work for Onasanya, said the victory had a lot to do with the party’s huge ground operation – 500 activists were said to have descended on the city on Thursday to get out the vote.
“It knocked everyone’s confidence a little bit that the Brexit party were surging in the polls,” he said. “But we had a solid agenda to focus on local issues because Peterborough has been disproportionally affected by austerity.”
Although Peterborough voted 60% in favour of leave in the EU referendum, people also cared about local issuessuch as violent crime, fly-tipping and cuts to services, Sweek said. “I think [the message] resonated well with the voters. There is more to Peterborough than Brexit. Obviously the Brexit people were keen to make Brexit the headline, but people can relate to stuff that is happening on their doorstep.”
For Amjad Iqbal and Shabina Qayyum, two Peterborough councillors, the result highlighted the importance of Labour support in the Asian community. “I would say the Muslim vote played a vital role in Lisa Forbes’s success,” Iqbal said.
He said the circumstances surrounding Onasanya’s removal from office had come up on the doorstep, but the party had been able to distance itself from her case. “A lot of people said they were disappointed in Fiona’s action and that they weren’t going to vote for Labour. But we said look, that was her personal action, the Labour party has no responsibility or control over it.”
Iqbal enlisted the help of his cousin Shoukat Farid, a politician in Kashmir, who had been in Peterborough campaigning since 31 May. Farid said lots of Kashmiri people in the constituency knew him and he hoped he had helped to get out the Labour vote.
With 7,243 votes, the Conservatives held up better than expected, which the Brexit party pointed to as one of the reasons for its disappointing night. Sue and Ray Robinett, a retired teacher and retired council worker, said they had both voted Tory for fear of splitting the anti-Labour vote by backing the Brexit party.
“I want Brexit the sooner the better but if too many people vote for the Brexit party, we’ll probably end up with a Labour prime minister,” Sue Robinett said. She had been outraged by Onasanya’s failure to resign as an MP after her conviction and did not accept Forbes’s apology for liking an antisemitic post on social media. “She says it was a mistake, but it’s easy for people to say that afterwards,” she said.
Ray Robinett said he had been tempted to vote for the Brexit party. “But it’s usually Labour versus Conservatives here, rather than the Brexit party. I clearly underestimated [the Brexit party],” he said. The couple said they had voted to leave the EU because of issues of sovereignty.
For Sweek, the result was a sign that the Brexit party’s EU elections success may not translate in a general election. “Even though they are playing it down this morning, they really thought they’d win this,” he said. “And if they can’t win seats like Peterborough, which is the kind of place they’re after, then I think maybe their new shine is wearing off.”