Wellingborough by-election: The seat poised to present Sunak with first electoral headache of 2024

  • ITV News Anglia's Ravneet Nandra speaks to Wellingborough constituents about what they expect from their next MP

Voters will head to the polls this week in one of the first major electoral tests of 2024 for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

The seat of Wellingborough in Northamptonshire is the prize on offer for all the major parties after the constituency's previous MP Peter Bone was removed by a recall petition.

That triggered a by-election which will take place on Thursday as the Tories try to cling on to power in a constituency that has been blue since 2005.

With the Conservatives protecting a majority of 18,540, any victory for Labour would likely be a small one, but a vital one nonetheless, as leader Sir Keir Starmer aims to lay down an early marker ahead of a General Election later this year.

ITV News Anglia has been looking at everything you need to know ahead of Thursday's showdown in Wellingborough.

What kind of constituency is it?

Wellingborough has a population of just over 115,000 people. Credit: ITV News Anglia

The Wellingborough constituency has been a safe Conservative seat for nearly two decades now, ever since former MP Peter Bone snatched it from Labour with a slender majority of just 687 votes in the 2005 General Election.

Before that, it tended to swing between Labour and the Conservatives, but since 2005, the Tories' majority has increased every election - culminating in an 18,540 majority in 2019, a 62% share of the vote.

A market town in north Northamptonshire, around 65 miles north of London, Wellingborough has a population of 115,800 and 86.9% of people there identify as white - slightly higher than the national average of 81%.

During the 2016 EU referendum, 62.4% of constituents voted for Leave - placing it in the top 10 most Brexit-leaning constituencies in the country.

Mr Bone himself was a leading Euro-sceptic who led one of the Leave campaigns to get Britain out of the EU.

At the next General Election, the seat will be known as Wellingborough and Rushden in order to also take in the nearby towns of Rushden and Higham Ferrers.

If Labour are to win the seat at the upcoming by-election, the party will require a 17% swing to claim victory.

Why is the seat up for grabs?

Peter Bone was ousted from his seat after more than 10% of his constituents voted to remove him. Credit: PA

A by-election was triggered after former MP Peter Bone was ousted from his seat as a result of a recall petition being signed by 10% of his constituents.

Mr Bone was suspended from the Commons for six weeks weeks after an inquiry found he had subjected one of his staff members to bullying and sexual misconduct - an allegation he denies.

A recall petition gives voters the power to remove an MP outside of general elections and is triggered if an MP is convicted of a crime or suspended from the Commons for more than 10 days.

In Mr Bone's case, just over 13.2% of the electorate backed the petition - about 10,500 people.

What are the main issues constituents are talking about?

A number of vacant shops have emerged in the town centre in recent years. Credit: ITV News Anglia

Wellingborough used to have a bustling market, and was granted a royal charter in 1201 by King John of England who granted permission for a market to be held every Wednesday.

Up until recently the market was still an important part of Wellingborough life, but fixed stalls were removed just before Christmas due to a rise in anti-social behaviour.

Like many towns, footfall on the high street has been down in recent years as people head to out-of-town shopping centres, like the nearby Rushden Lakes complex, which has led to an increase in vacant units.

"What Wellingborough really needs is vibrancy," said Adam Fox from the Wellingborough East Northants Chamber of Commerce.

"We need to bring in a more diverse range of businesses to fill the vacant units. If we can do something to start bringing in a wider variety of businesses, that's going to help the footfall come in because it's going to give people a reason to come to Wellingborough."

Locals are also concerned about the prominence of knife crime and violence in the town.

The Off the Streets charity was set up following the fatal stabbing of teenager Dylan Holliday in 2021, and the group has already installed 225 bleed kits across Northamptonshire.

As the name suggests, keeping youngsters off the streets is a key part of the charity's mission statement - something that's been helped by the launch of a youth club at St Mark's Church on the town's Queensway estate.

But those involved say that more support is needed.

"I'd like the new MP to really champion the funding of youth intervention programmes that really provide results and turn people's lives around," said Rev Ben Lewis from St Mark's Church.

"When people get involved in criminality and gangs, that's a long road - it doesn't happen overnight."

What are the candidates saying?

Helen Harrison (top left), Gen Kitchen (top right), Will Morris (bottom left) and Ana Savage Gunn (bottom right) are among the candidates. Credit: Conservative Party, PA, Green Party, ITV News Anglia

Because of the way the by-election was called - preceded by a lengthy recall period - the major parties have been campaigning since long before the vote was formally called.

Labour in particular has poured resources into the campaign, with leader Sir Keir Starmer visiting just days before the vote, following Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting's several weeks earlier.

Candidates from the three main parties nationally told ITV News Anglia about how they had approached the campaign.

Conservative Helen Harrison, partner of former MP Peter Bone, said that the couple had been well received on the doorsteps.

"When I'm out on the doorstep with Peter... we get a really warm reception. But people know that I'm a different person as well. Peter and I have campaigned on so many things together, but I'm Helen Harrison.

"I'm a local person, I come from a health background, all my life I've given to helping other people so I bring a different perspective and that's what people are going to get locally."

Labour's Gen Kitchen insisted she was "not complacent" despite the expectation of a large swing to her party.

"We keep going out, knocking the doors, bringing some of our front bench here as well so they can hear what residents are saying. We are really keen to make sure that people know that there's an alternative offer in Labour.

"That we are a safe pair of hands both with the economy, with the health service, with councils, to make sure that people feel comfortable enough to maybe leave and make that leap of faith to vote Labour for maybe the first time."

Ana Savage Gunn of the Liberal Democrats said the by-election was shaping up to be a national test.

"I think everybody knows what the local issues are - they are the same as many places. It's going to be the cost of living, it's going to be crime, it's going to be not getting a GP or dentist, and potholes, obviously.

"But Wellingborough, Rushden, Higham have a chance - nationally - to make a statement here."

The other candidates standing for election are:

  • Jay Mala Post-Mortem - Ankit Love JKNPP

  • Alex Merola - Britain First - Stop The Boats

  • Will Morris - Green Party

  • Marion Turner-Hawes - Independent

  • Kevin Watts - Independent

  • Andre Pyne-Bailey - Independent

  • Ben Habib - Reform UK

  • Nick the Flying Brick - The Official Monster Raving Loony Party

What will the result mean?

Defeat for the Conservatives would heap further pressure on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Credit: PA

ITV News Anglia's political correspondent Emma Hutchinson says the impact of the result in Wellingborough could reverberate far beyond the constituency.

"This is set to be an election year and the vote in Wellingborough will be the first real test of public opinion," she said.

"Labour would love to win here; the Conservatives would love to hold on and all eyes at Westminster will be on the result in Wellingborough.

"Whatever happens here might just set the mood for the General Election campaign to come."

Who's the favourite to win?

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer joined candidate Gen Kitchen for some last-minute campaigning in Rushden this week. Credit: PA

Most of the bookmakers aren't looking beyond a convincing Labour win.

The latest odds from SkyBet put them clear at 1/12 to win the seat, way ahead of the Conservatives who are rated as a distant 14/1 shot.

In fact, it's Reform UK who the bookies believe are the most likely threat to Labour with odds of 15/2, but it could well be a tough night for both the Liberal Democrats and the Greens who are rated as 100/1 and 250/1 shots respectively.

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know