For some it was the walk of shame that hurt the most, as Christian Wakeford crossed the Commons to take his place on the Labour Party benches. Others I’ve spoken to said they felt especially sickened by the handshakes. But for me, a lifelong resident of Wakeford’s Bury South constituency and one of the voters who helped the now-defecting Tory MP secure his slender 402 majority, it was his signature. Watching footage of our elected representative signing away his soul, as a beatific Keir Starmer looked on, was a car crash moment. I had to switch the television off.
Of course, the sense of being politically cuckolded has triggered feelings of bleak betrayal and profound despair across our patch. Yet as a member of Bury South’s Jewish community, the sense of abandonment is especially painful. Wakeford pledged to protect and stand with us as antisemitism tore through the Labour Party. The fact that he has now signed up to the opposition is an act of unequivocal treachery.
Bury South – the cluster of former mill towns Prestwich, Radcliffe, and Whitefield – has one of the largest Jewish communities in the country. It doesn’t overstate the case or catastrophise the circumstances to say that back in 2019, the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn being given the keys to Number 10 was terrifying.
Routinely we would sit around the Friday night dinner table – candles flickering as we ushered in the Jewish Sabbath – discussing with friends and family whether we had a future in the UK should Labour win the election. Even Ivan Lewis, the former Labour minister, who had represented the seat since 1997 and who stood as an independent in 201, urged voters to support Wakeford. It was, he repeatedly told the Jewish community, “the best way to stop Jeremy Corbyn becoming prime minister”.
And so, like many, I offered the Tory’s prospective parliamentary candidate my support at the ballot box. Keeping Corbyn, a leader who failed to take responsibility for institutionalised antisemitism (even when investigated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission), away from power was vital.
Until yesterday, I had never regretted the decision. As our new MP, Wakeford swiftly established himself as a sensitive and understanding supporter of a Jewish community still reeling from the Corbyn years. He understood what we had suffered. It makes his willingness to cross the floor even more unpalatable.
Yes, Keir Starmer has shown credible and declared intent to stamp out antisemitism within his party. But equally this was a man who campaigned for Corbyn in 2019 and would have worked with him had he become prime minister. During his own leadership campaign Starmer was also reluctant to criticise his predecessor, since he remained popular among the party membership. (No surprise that grassroots hard Left figures in the party are now lashing out at the Bury South MP’s recent voting record and questioning why he is being allowed in by Sir Keir Starmer.)
Christian Wakeford reflects on defecting from Tories to Labour
Meanwhile, what of Wakeford’s other new colleagues? Only last month David Lammy apologised for nominating Jeremy Corbyn to be Labour leader in 2015 and said he is “staggered” that some individuals with deeply antisemitic views remain in the Labour Party.
Of course Wakeford’s defection isn’t just a stinging act of disloyalty for his Jewish constituents. Many residents of Bury South will have voted for the 38-year-old candidate as part of the Boris boom – keen to ensure that Labour, with its chaotic agenda of stirring class conflict, ruinous big state ideas and quasi Marxist politics, didn’t have a chance. And yet it hurts so much for Jewish people because we looked to Wakeford as our protector. An assured parliamentary voice who could stand up for this community.
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Naturaly he is entitled to show his dismay and disgust at the events in Number 10. Nothing must minimise the anguish so many suffered from draconian rules which we observed while the Prosecco corks popped in Downing Street.
But if Wakeford truly can’t abide what the Tory party stands for then he should resign and trigger a by-election. Indeed – and oh, the hypocrisy! – in September 2020, he actually backed the Recall of MPs (Change of Party Affiliation) Bill, which would enable constituents to recall their MP and call a by-election if they “voluntarily change their political party affiliation”.
We need a by-election because the people of Bury South deserve the choice. We didn’t vote Tory to get Labour. And the constituency’s Jewish community, whose synagogues and Jewish schools are protected by security guards and CCTV cameras, didn’t vote in a man whose new party still has to prove that we are not the enemy.