Bury South has a fascinating recent political history, having been won by the Conservatives at the 2019 general election with a small majority before their successful MP defected to Labour. A collection of competing political forces made the outcome in 2019 difficult to predict but progressives have a simple tactical voting choice at the next general election.
Geography, politics and demographics
Bury South is something of a misnomer as the constituency boundaries don’t actually include any of the town of Bury itself aside from Unsworth ward. The constituency is largely concentrated on the towns of Prestwich, Whitefield and Radcliffe in the south of the Metropolitan Borough of Bury. It was the tenth most marginal seat in the country in the 2019 general election, being won by the Conservative Party candidate Christian Wakeford with a majority of 402.
From creation of the seat in 1983 until the Labour landslide of 1997, Bury South was held by the Conservatives. Labour candidate Ivan Lewis won the seat in 1997 with a 13.9% swing and retained it until 2019. However Lewis was suspended by the Labour Party in 2017 after sexual misconduct allegations; he remained the MP for Bury South and contested the seat as an independent candidate in 2019.
Lewis had actually resigned from the Labour Party in December 2018 citing antisemitism in the party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and had intended to withdraw from the 2019 candidates list but he did so too late to be removed from the ballot paper. He urged his supporters to vote Conservative in 2019 to defeat Jeremy Corbyn. Although they have previously held council seats in the area, the Liberal Democrats have failed to secure over 5% of the vote in parliamentary elections for the seat.
The key demographic which distinguishes Bury South is the large Jewish population – Prestwich in particular has the largest Jewish community outside London. This influenced the 2019 general election as concerns about Labour’s attitude to anti-Semitism drove Jewish voters away from the party.
It’s difficult to separate the multiple factors when considering the 2019 general election: the general country-wide swing away from Labour to the Conservatives especially in Leave-voting seats such as Bury South, the effect of both Ivan Lewis standing as an independent candidate and the Brexit Party standing, plus the undoubted influence of the Jewish bloc. Ultimately the seat was won by the Conservative Party candidate Christian Wakeford with a majority of 402 votes.
Defection of Christian Wakeford
A political storm broke out in January 2022 when Wakeford crossed the floor and joined the Labour Party. Wakeford cited his concerns about then-Conservative leader and Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s leadership and it was alleged he had written one of the first no confidence letters in Johnson after revelations of Covid lockdown parties in Downing Street.
However, it was revealed that he had been considering defecting for four months and had become increasingly dissatisfied with the Conservative Party, which he had been a member of for 20 years. Wakeford claimed that he opposed the removal of the £20 per week universal credit uplift and that he had only voted for it due to heavy-handed government whipping policies, which further disillusioned him.
Wakeford began to worry that his 400 vote majority would not be enough to retain his seat and he started making overtures towards Labour, which encouraged him to defect. For Labour, Wakeford was an ideal defector. The northern Conservative MP might bring former Labour voters back to the party with him, as well as being a symbol of Labour’s move away from the Jeremy Corbyn years.
It was confirmed in November 2022 that Wakeford would be the Labour candidate for Bury South at the next general election. Controversially, this was decided without a ‘trigger ballot’ of local party branches, trade union branches and socialist societies to select a prospective parliamentary candidate but this was justified by Labour’s national executive committee because Wakeford had become a Labour MP after the 2019 general election.
Important issues and concerns in Bury South
Bury South contains a mixture of affluent areas, such as parts of Prestwich, and deprived areas such as parts of Radcliffe. In areas of Radcliffe, according to data from the last census, the proportion of ‘never worked’ and ‘long term unemployed’ is 45% higher than the north west average while the amount of good quality jobs is below the regional average.
There is no secondary school in Radcliffe at present. The Radcliffe Riverside High School closed in 2010 and was not directly replaced. Secondary pupils need to travel to Whitefield or Bury. Proposals for a replacement school have been progressing slowly with a site identified and funding finally agreed for development prior to a 2024 opening.
Bury children’s services were deemed inadequate following an Ofsted inspection in October 2021. A year later, matters were only somewhat improved, with a further Ofsted inspection deeming the services ‘inconsistent’ with ‘pockets of improvement’. St Monica’s school in Prestwich and The Heys School (formerly Prestwich Arts College) converted to academy status in 2020, the latter as a direct result of an Ofsted ‘inadequate’ rating. Another major Prestwich school is Parrenthorn, which dropped from ‘outstanding’ to ‘requires improvement’ in its most recent 2019 Ofsted inspection.
It is unclear how much blame for these educational failings can be attributed to the Labour-controlled Bury council and how much to central government, but education is sure to be a key issue at the next election.
Bury Council issued vouchers including free out-of-term meals and school uniform credits to assist with the cost-of-living crisis. It is likely that inflation/cost of living will be a significant issue in the next election campaign, especially given the deprived demographics of some parts of Radcliffe.
Regeneration of Radcliffe town centre
Radcliffe has been affected badly by decades of deindustrialisation and neglect. The closure of local paper mills and coal mines affected the affluence of the town centre which austerity and Westminster indifference has done nothing to help.
A multi-million pound investment scheme for Radcliffe town centre was announced by Bury Council in August 2022. The work will include a new civic centre and library with leisure facilities. Funding of £20mn is to come from the government’s levelling up fund. Bury Council purchased two 1960s shopping blocks in the town centre and plans to build modern facilities on the site. The scheme aims to create an environment to nurture small businesses with the existing library being repurposed as an enterprise hub.
Radcliffe Market was refurbished in 2014 and subsequently taken over by a community group in 2018 with the new emphasis being on fresh, local produce and ethical products. The template of Radcliffe Market has been hailed as an exemplar for how high streets can recover post-Covid.
Prestwich High Street refurbishment
Ambitious plans to transform Prestwich town centre were revealed in April 2022. The plans aim to create spaces for local, independent businesses and new homes with outdoor social spaces and a community hub.
Key to this is the demolition of the existing 1960s-vintage Longfield shopping precinct with the £100mn scheme being a 50-50 joint venture between Bury Council and property development firm Muse Developments.
The Council acquired the Longfield Centre in 2021 as a first step in the project. Prestwich High Street was the subject of a £2mn refurbishment in 2017 that saw tree planting, widening and resurfacing of pavements and the introduction of cycle lanes to improve the quality of the environment for high street shoppers.
The review of constituency boundaries for England has yet to be finalised. However, for the Bury area, the recommendations from the Boundary Commission are that the Radcliffe North council ward should move from Bury South into neighbouring Bury North. The reason given is that the number of voters in each redrawn constituency is required to be in the range 69,724 to 77,062 electors and Bury North currently falls below this level. To compensate, the Salford ward of Kersal and Broughton Park is recommended to be included in Bury South.
In the 2022 local elections, Radcliffe North elected two independent and one Conservative councillor and it is unclear how its proposed reallocation to Bury North would affect the electoral outcome in either Bury constituency.
Bury South is a fascinating constituency for the neutral political analyst. Given the substantial Labour lead in national opinion polling, Christian Wakeford might expect to retain his seat easily. However in-depth analysis has shown that Labour’s lead is far less substantial than it appears once ‘undecided’ voters are taken into account.
Progressive voters therefore have a clear tactical voting choice at the next general election.