TORY voters are turning away from Boris Johnson in “disgust” at Conservative sleaze and the cost of living crisis, Labour ’s hopeful for Thursday’s Old Bexley and Sidcup by-election told the Mirror.
Peppa Pig has also been cited as a reason why voters will not back the Prime Minister’s candidate at the ballot box.
But Labour’s Daniel Francis admitted winning the seat from the Tories’ 76-year grip and where they are defending an 18,952 majority would be “a difficult path, we don’t underestimate that”.
The constituency was created in 1983 and has always been won by the Tories.
Former Conservative PM Ted Heath held the seat – and its predecessor, Bexley – for 51 years.
The last time Labour won here was a 1946 by-election.
Local councillor Mr Francis, 44, said the route to victory “is a difficult path”, adding: “It does rely on Tories staying at home, some Tories voting for us, Tories voting for other parties, people who might support smaller parties voting Labour.
“We accept it’s a difficult path, but it is possible.”
The by-election was triggered by the death from cancer of former Cabinet Minister James Brokenshire in October.
Mr Francis, a dad of eight-year old twin girls, decided to launch his bid to oust the Conservatives from this South East London stronghold on the Kent border after being persuaded by wife Emma, a teacher, and parents at the school gates.
“I’m standing because I had a broad consensus of Labour Party members plus Conservative and Liberal Democrat voters at my daughters’ school gates encouraging me to stand, saying, ‘If you do, we will vote Labour’.
“Those conversations made me believe I could bring together a cross-section of people who normally wouldn’t vote Labour, along with those who do vote Labour.
“Those people at the school gates have been natural Conservatives but they’re really not happy with what is happening with public services and believe that I was the person that could be arguing for the right direction in Parliament.”
Anger at the Government ranges from the failure to tackle rising gas and food prices to Tory sleaze.
“People have been talking about bread and butter issues – cost of living, high streets, policing, cuts the Conservative council has made,” said Mr Francis.
“But during the course of the campaign, people’s perceptions have changed about the Prime Minister and about the sleaze that has been surrounding this Government.”
While realistic about their chances of winning the seat, Labour canvassers have been buoyed by doorstep reactions.
Some traditional Conservatives have volunteered they will not back the party’s candidate Louie French – blaming the Prime Minister.
Mr Francis added: “People have looked at the performance of both the main party leaders and seen who they believe is competent and in control of events and concluded that isn’t the Prime Minister, and that under Keir’s leadership they want to look at the Labour Party again and give us another chance.”
Tories who defend Mr Johnson point to his electoral successes – twice winning the London mayoralty, leading the Brexit campaign and steering the Tories to their 80-seat majority at the 2019 general election.
But Mr Francis believes the magic has worn off – and Peppa Pig may have played a role.
The PM was widely mocked for talking about the cartoon character during a speech to business leaders last month.
“When Boris Johnson was the Mayor of London here, he had a very large personal vote and popular appeal,” said Mr Francis.
“But one of the key issues people cite as the main reason they are defecting to Labour is the Peppa Pig speech.”
He added: “The Prime Minister has clearly become unpopular here and is being cited as a liability.
“I’ve had someone who was a Conservative member until last year tell me he had left the party and was voting Labour in disgust.”
Labour insiders concede it will probably not be enough to beat the Tories, but they are confident of cutting the Conservative majority.
Mr Francis hopes voters will flock to Labour – boosting the party’s hopes nationally.
Fuelling hopes Mr Starmer’s leadership will revive Labour’s fortunes, he cited the midpoint of Tory PM John Major’s reign, when voters were turning to Labour.
“I’ve been in the Labour Party since 1994, I first knocked a door when John Smith was leader,” he said.
“I think people are looking at us in a similar vein to that period in our history, that we are beginning a path after a period when we did have a difficult time, of moving back to the people and electability.”
Asked about Jeremy Corbyn ’s ongoing influence on voters, he said: “Some people still have that period in their memories, some people feel we have moved on.
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“Clearly we will see what the result is on Thursday, but there will be a path that some people need a longer time to look back at that period in our history and think that we have changed.
“But they are seeing on a number of issues how the party is moving on.
“We are moving back to the centre ground and to where the main thrust of the British people are.”
What are voters saying?
Voters on Bexley High Street today made clear their unease with the Tories – and some pledged their support for Labour, while others had advice for Keir Starmer.
But they all expected the Conservatives to win on Thursday.
Eva Seeley, 79, a retired estate agent, said: “I’m going to be voting Labour. I have always voted Labour and I’m not very happy with the Government at the moment – I think Boris isn’t doing a very good job.
“Keir Starmer is doing OK. He’s a bright man but he needs a bit more charisma.
“I don’t think Labour will win but they might cut the majority.”
Susan Berry, 74, a retired hospitality manager for Lehman Brothers, said: “I will stick with what I always stick with – the Conservatives.
“I’m not 100% happy with the Conservative Party at the moment, but I won’t vote for the alternative.
“Labour don’t say anything positive about what they would do – solutions instead of criticisms.
“I think Boris has had a bit of a rough ride, myself.”
Ashley Johnson, 25, a plumber, said: “I didn’t know the by-election was taking place.
“I don’t really follow politics but I know a bit about Boris – I don’t think he’s really the best.
“He’s more for the rich class. For the working and middle class people, he doesn’t really help them.
“I would probably vote Labour, but I would like to know more about Keir Starmer.
“I reckon he should help out the people who are working class – not tax them so much, bring living costs down, rent and things like that.
“That’s how to help normal people.”
John Bowerman, 80, a pensioner, said: “I’m voting Labour, I always do – but it’s a waste of time.
“The Tories – they could put up a pig in lipstick and they would win here.”
Sarah Spencer, 47, a finance manager, said: “I haven’t seen anything from the Lib Dems through the door – so much Conservative stuff!
“If there’s a Lib Dem then definitely I’m voting for them – I’ve always been a Lib Dem supporter, I just wish there was more activity from them in the area, they need to be more vocal.
“Unfortunately, it’s a Conservative borough and has been for a long time. But I think there should be some change.”
What’s the constituency like?
Old Bexley and Sidcup is in South East London suburbia and borders Kent.
The constituency was created in 1983 and former Prime Minister Ted Heath held the seat until 2001.
It has only ever had Conservative MPs in its 38-year history and the closest Labour has come to winning was in 2001 when the Tory majority was cut to just 3,345 – when Heath retired.
Labour has come second at the last eight general elections.
The Liberals came second in 1983 and 1987.
James Brokenshire became the MP in 2010 and his majority at the December 2019 poll was 18,952.
His death in early October from lung cancer triggered Thursday’s by-election.
The seat is in the “doughnut” of outer-London boroughs where the Tories and Liberal Democrats are often successful, whereas Labour’s support traditionally lies in the capital’s inner-city seats.
No-one expects Daniel Francis to win but the party would face criticism if it failed to cut the Conservative majority, on what is expected to be a low turnout.