Does Sleaford really matter much more than Richmond?

A large Anglican church with a spire, with a war memorial in front of itWhy Sleaford matters more than Richmond - CapX

Last week there were two by-elections in the UK triggered by resignations of MPs. One was in Richmond Park, in which Zac Goldsmith had resigned from the Conservative Party and stood as an independent (albeit unopposed by the Conservatives) and lost to an unknown Lib Dem. The other was in Sleaford and North Hykeham in Lincolnshire, in which a Tory resigned, citing differences with the government over Brexit, foreign aid and child refugees, did not defend the seat, and the Tory candidate who stood in his place won. The above article claims that the Sleaford result was more important than the one in Richmond, that there are many more places like Sleaford than like Richmond, and that the media’s fixation on Richmond is because the media tend to focus on those who live near them and think like they do.

I dispute a lot of what this article says. Richmond Park, to start with, was held by the Liberal Democrats from 1997 to 2010 (first Jenny Tonge and then Sarah Teather), and was one of a number of south-west London seats held by the Lib Dems during the same period although it was the first to fall to the Tories (others in the same area fell in 2015, when the Lib Dem vote was split as a result of the coalition). So, the by-election can be seen as the Lib Dems starting to claw back their old territory, and significantly by putting up a fresh face who is untainted with association with the Coalition. It is indeed a prosperous commuter belt seat, and probably more so than the other former Lib Dem seats in this part of London.

Sleaford was a safe Tory seat, and the only surprise is that the Tories held the seat on a turnout of only 37.1% (Richmond’s was 53.44%). The seat is mostly rural, consisting otherwise of one small town (Sleaford) and one suburb of Lincoln (North Hykeham). It was represented by Douglas Hogg, son of Quintin Hogg, a minister under Tory Prime Ministers from Eden to Thatcher, until 2010 when he resigned over controversies about his expenses. Douglas Hogg himself had held a cabinet post under John Major, so it’s a safe enough seat for Tories to put up members of political dynasties and cabinet ministers, although the outgoing MP, Stephen Phillips, was neither. The CapX article claims:

Sleaford isn’t, by the way, an island of deprivation. It’s actually one of the most prosperous parts of Lincolnshire – the sort of quiet, productive, largely monocultural place that attracts patronising descriptors about “the heart of England”.

Which is precisely why it matters. There are, in the end, far more places like Sleaford than Richmond – places that are conservative not just electorally but culturally, where people are doing more than “just about managing”, but are by no means in the economic stratosphere.

Sleaford isn’t unique (Huntingdon, to the south in Cambridgeshire, has a similar profile), but there actually aren’t that many places like it, and there are quite a few other places like Richmond (consider the tract of anti-Brexit territory to the south and west of London, including Theresa May’s Maidenhead seat), many of whose residents have expensive properties but are not money-rich (although quite a few in Richmond are rich). The idea that it’s monocultural (apart from all the eastern European farm and factory workers, who couldn’t vote) and conservative is commonly used to mean it’s the “real” England, but those places are no more or less real than the wealthy commuter belt or the inner cities or university towns. None of them can be taken for granted but no party can rule by taking one of these groups of constituencies on their own.

An aerial view showing two towns either side of the River Thames, which forms a C-shaped bend in the picture. As for the performance of the Labour party, it should be remembered that they have never won either seat. The article states that the results showed how “Jeremy Corbyn demonstrated his matchless ability to simultaneously alienate Northern workers and Southern commuters”. Sleaford isn’t the North; it’s a lowland farming area that has more in common with parts of the northern Home Counties or East Anglia than with anywhere in the North. In Richmond, there was a debate as to whether Labour should even put up a candidate as the Lib Dems had the best chance of unseating Goldsmith, which was seen as an imperative because of his involvement in the racist campaign against Sadiq Khan. Their candidate, Christian Wolmar, who had the same views on both Brexit and Heathrow expansion as the Lib Dem candidate, is a long-standing campaigner on rail issues but does not live in the area.

In Sleaford, the Lib Dems were the only party other than the Tories to gain in terms of vote share; this is perhaps because they were the only party which was unequivocally anti-Brexit and thus represented the 40% of the people in the district that voted to remain in the EU; Jeremy Corbyn is seen as being pro-Brexit and many Labour politicians thought to have been pro-EU had been publicly reconsidering their positions since the referendum. In short, even given their historical second place in the constituency, the party had become the third pro-Brexit party and thus gave nobody any real reason to vote for them.

As for why the media covered Richmond more avidly than Sleaford, the obvious reason is that in Sleaford they expected the Tory to win, as they have for generations, while in Richmond there was a real chance for someone else to win, despite the incumbent’s celebrity status, and indeed someone else did. Richmond is that much more accessible from anywhere in London than Sleaford, but Sleaford is only a couple of hours’ drive from London; it doesn’t require cutting through dense bush to reach it. There are in fact plenty of Tories in the mainstream media; you need only look at some of their front pages. And lastly, as only 37% of people in Sleaford bothered to vote, how can you blame anyone else for taking little interest in it?

Image source: Wikipedia. Image of Sleaford sourced from Dave Hitchbourne and one other, licensed under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 licence. Image of Richmond and Twickenham sourced from “Cmglee”, licensed under the Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0 licence.

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