4h agoRussian assault kills four as Ukraine prepares for first December Christmas
9h agoBlock Truss's resignation honours, Sunak urged ahead of list being published
9h agoHumza Yousaf says relatives in Gaza face 'indescribable' festive period

Inside the bitter Labour-Lib Dem Mid Bedfordshire by-election war that could let the Tories win

Many lifelong Conservatives in Nadine Dorries' old seat have had enough of the party. But fierce campaigns may yet split the anti-Tory vote and hand Rishi Sunak victory

Tomorrow’s long anticipated Mid Bedfordshire by-election is too close to call, party activists have told i.

Both Liberal Democrat and Labour teams on the ground in the tightly fought battle in Nadine Dorries’ old seat say they have never known so many voters to be “undecided” on the eve of polling day.

On the doorsteps, lifelong Conservative voters are saying the party no longer has their support. But when asked who they will be backing instead many are “still thinking about it”.

However the bookies believe there will be enough loyal Tories left to allow the party of government to come through the middle, and have made the Conservatives their late favourites.

What is clear is that any suggestion of an “anti-Tory alliance” between the two main opposition parties fell apart early on in the race.

Whilst there may have been hope among the Lib Dems that Labour would take a backseat in the battle to win this largely rural constituency, that has not been the case.

Labour sources say their party – which came second to the Tories in the constituency in the 2019 general election – are fighting because they think they can win and point to polling putting them ahead of the Lib Dems.

They are critical of the Lib Dem campaigning leaflets, with one insider accusing the party of “dripping poison through the letterboxes” by using material they say is misleading.

And they have, in particular, raised questions about recent pamphlets made to look like local newspapers – something that has angered regional journalists in Bedfordshire – which contain graphs suggesting Labour cannot win the seat. Labour claims the graphs are unsourced and “made up”. A Lib Dem campaign source said they used internal canvassing data.

Meanwhile the Lib Dems have hit back at criticisms from Peter Kyle, Labour’s shadow Science Secretary – who has been leading the campaign in the area – arguing he is bringing bitter Westminster politics to a local battle.

Mr Kyle previously criticised the personal nature of the Lib Dem campaign and suggested it was mirroring homophobic campaigns against LGBT candidates back in the 1980s – an accusation robustly refuted by the party.

“To be clear, I never said they shouldn’t stand, they should stand. But throughout the campaign they have lied and used innuendo and constantly acted like it is a Labour-Lib Dem fight,” Mr Kyle told i.

“They are not defined by national issues, they have no identity other than ‘we are not the Tories and we are not Labour’.”

But the Lib Dems – who have a successful history of by-election victories – insist there’s no chance of Labour being able to win the rural Tory stronghold.

“In the villages Labour are simply not factoring,” a Lib Dem campaign source said. “They have focused much of their campaigning in [the more built-up areas of] Shefford and Flitwick but it is the soft Conservatives in the more rural parts of the constituency that will decide the result.”

Christine Jardine, Lib Dem MP for Edinburgh West, said Labour had “hit their campaign ceiling early on”. “Many of the people here are soft Conservatives so for them to go to Labour is a big leap,” she argued.

Both opposition parties are campaigning hard and have been doing so for several months – even before the official resignation of outgoing MP Ms Dorries – to the point where the candidates, Alistair Strathern for Labour and Emma Holland-Lindsay for the Lib Dems, are recognised instantly by voters.

Issues coming up on the doorsteps range from the hyper local – one couple i saw being canvassed wanted a new road crossing near a primary school, another complained about anti-social behaviour at the local Morrisons – to national policies. One elderly voter said she was backing the Lib Dems because “I am worried about the state pension triple lock and the Lib Dems are the only ones who have promised to keep it after the next election”.

Where there is agreement among the two main opposition parties is that people in Mid Bedfordshire are just happy to be listened to for what they feel is the first time. A constituency “surgery” hosted by Ms Holland-Lindsay on Friday had a queue out of the door and the most recent community Q&A held by Mr Strathern filled a local hall and saw him questioned for two-and-a-half hours.

But there is a recognition within their teams that their bitter fight could actually pave the way for the Conservative candidate Festus Akinbusoye to scrape through to win – despite anti-Tory feeling in the area.

Out on the campaign trail with Lib Dem candidate Ms Holland-Lindsay it is clear that this is a concern. Her message on the doorstep is that this is a “fight between the Lib Dems and Conservatives here”. She argues frequently that Labour is unlikely to win in the rural seat.

But Professor Will Jennings, an expert in politics, polling and public opinion at the University of Southampton said this view was “not backed up by the evidence”.

“We are limited in how much we know about what is happening on the ground in mid-Beds, and one should always take claims by the parties with a pinch of salt in the absence of firm evidence,” he said.

“We do have some constituency polling – Opinium from July and Survation from September – which puts Labour and the Conservatives in the top two.

“The Lib Dems have proved themselves by-election specialists over the years, so there is a danger that a strong campaign by them may lead to the anti-incumbent vote splintering.”

A Labour victory here might take some by surprise. But the party argues it would also be part of a wider pattern that could be replicated on a national level because, they say, the issues people care about in Mid Beds are national ones: the NHS, cost of living, dissatisfaction with Tories and desire for a hopeful alternative.

“We’re here in such an energetic way because residents are responding so positively and it’s based on evidence – not a hunch,” a Labour source said.

“We sensed from the outset that residents wanted something hopeful and positive. We’ve tried to do that. We’ve met residents where they are and trusted this community to recognise and reward a positive campaign and hardworking, sincere candidate.”

Tom Lubbock, a co-founder of pollsters JL Partners, argues the Tamworth by-election – also happening tomorrow – will actually be more instructive on a national level.

“Labour set the benchmark for [the Tamworth] result in July when they overcame a very similar looking Conservative majority in Selby,” he said. “Selby and Tamworth are over 100 miles apart, but the circumstances are quite similar. If Labour has advanced at all then they should win Tamworth actually quite comfortably.

“Mid Bedfordshire is an unusual Lib-Lab-Con three-way fight that is not mirrored in many seats elsewhere in the country. With that said if the Conservatives can win in Mid-Bedfordshire then it will still be a significant victory, but not one that will tell us much about whether national voting intention polls are playing out at the constituency level.”

The Conservatives have been keeping a low media profile as far as both by-elections are concerned but could conceivably emerge as double winners on Friday morning.

“Midterm elections are extremely tough for incumbent governments,” the Prime Minister’s spokesperson has said. “We’ve obviously got some difficult headwinds with these two as well but we are going to be fighting for every vote and we’ve got two great candidates.”

So if the Mid Beds war between Labour and the Lib Dems does cost both parties a victory could the fallout lead to more co-operation between the two in the future?

“We don’t know at the moment if there will be an appetite for tactical voting at the next general election, but if there is then I think we can expect it to be better organised than in Mid Beds,” Dr Lubbock said.

“The appeal of a one-off by-election was too much for either Labour or Lib Dems to resist.”

Most Read By Subscribers