Everything to play for in Bury South at general election 2024

Everything to play for in Bury South at general election 2024

Bury South constituency profile June 2024

The strangest thing about the Bury South constituency —part of the metropolitan county of Greater Manchester —is that it does not actually include the rambunctious market town of Bury itself. That honour belongs to the neighbouring constituency of Bury North, currently the most marginal seat in Britain as it was held by the Conservatives in 2019 by just 105 votes.

But in this election, in July 2024, there is certain to be a renewed focus on Bury South, currently the 10th most marginal constituency in the country —and the home to the largest Jewish community outside London.

In the immediate post-war years, the original constituency was created for the 1950 general election. In 1983 it was split into Bury North and Bury South; but before that the constituency was known as Bury and Radcliffe.

Michael Fidler, the first Jewish mayor of Prestwich, became both president of the Board of Deputies and MP for Bury and Radcliffe from 1970 – 1974. He founded the Conservative Friends of Israel, but lost his seat to Labour’s Frank White — who was the MP from 1974 to 1983.

Boundary changes in 1983 meant the area ping-ponged back to the Conservatives, when the Jewish Tory David Sumberg became the first Bury South MP: he lost to Labour’s Ivan Lewis, also Jewish, in the 1997 Labour landslide.

Lewis held Bury South for Labour from 1997 to 2017, and for the next two years as an independent MP. In the febrile atmosphere of the 2019 election, Lewis urged people to vote Conservative because of the perception that a Labour vote would help catapult Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street.

In that election, the count went down to the wire: Christian Wakeford, a well-known local councillor, won Bury South by a narrow majority of just 402 votes over his Labour rival, Lucy Burke.

But today there is a fascinating dilemma for Bury South voters, because of two factors: first, that Wakeford defected to Labour in 2022 — and did not submit himself to a by-election; and second, that new boundary changes mean that a ward previously belonging to the neighbouring city of Salford, Kersal and Broughton Park, has now been transferred to the Bury South constituency. And that is important because Kersal and Broughton Park is home to a significantly large strictly Orthodox community — many of whom have declined to vote in previous elections.

So there are eight candidates vying for top place in the Bury South constituency, from Reform UK to Communist and even a candidate for George Galloway’s Workers’ Party. There’s a Lib Dem, a Green, and a hopeful for the English Democrats Party.

But the real contest will be between Christian Wakeford, the outgoing Labour MP; and the Conservatives’ choice as candidate, who, if he wins, is likely to be the first Orthodox rabbi in Parliament, Rabbi Arnold Saunders.

By-elections loom large in the story of Bury South. Rabbi Saunders, the former minister of the now closed Higher Crumpsall and Higher Broughton Synagogue, became involved in local politics for Salford City Council in 2017 as a result of a by-election called when Kersal ward’s Labour councillor died in office.

He won a number of elections for the Conservatives in both Kersal and, as it became, Kersal and Broughton Park. He also won a full-four-year term as councillor in May 2024 and says he is not necessarily minded to give up his council seat even if he succeeds in his bid to become Bury South’s MP.

“To call a by-election” [if he were to stand down as councillor] “costs the borough £15,000 and would cause a lot of people all sorts of heartache. There are a lot of councillors, who in my view would do less work than I would be able to do as an MP, when of course I would have staff to help me. So it’s not my proposal to give up being a councillor at the moment”.
That’s not set in stone, Rabbi Saunders says, “and if I find it too challenging I would change my mind”.

The boundary changes are complex, bringing the voter base to around 75,000, and mean that the religious Jewish communities now finding themselves with a choice of eight would-be MPs have never before been faced with the choice between an Orthodox rabbi and a person whom they might have supported as a Conservative politician — but not necessarily as a Labour representative.

“I believe that this new constituency is definitely the largest and most intensely Jewish community outside London,” says Rabbi Saunders, who was selected as the Conservative candidate “on the night before Succot — September 28, 2023”.
He is not complimentary about his Labour opponent, Christian Wakeford, claiming that many felt and still feel “betrayed” by his crossing of the floor in January 2022. “I even endorsed Christian on his campaign leaflets in 2019 and I do feel let down by what he did. And there is the fact that in September 2020 he presented and backed the Recall of MPs (Change of Party Affiliation) Bill”.
Sponsored by the Tory MP Anthony Mangnall, the bill was intended to enable voters to recall their MP and call a by-election “if they voluntarily change their party political affiliation”. It was promoted as “an end to defection without re-election”. But Christian Wakeford defected to Labour and did not submit to a by-election.

Wakeford, for his part, is dismissive about his role in the Recall of MPs Bill, saying that he was simply “lending a friend a hand” in presenting the Bill.
He says that his change of party took place “at the height of the cost of living crisis and the Conservatives would have had to choose another candidate. So potentially the electorate could have gone for two or three months without any representation, as I say, just at the height of the cost of living crisis. When I was first elected, I said that I had been elected to represent everybody, not just Conservatives. The only people who seem to be bothered [now] are hard-line Conservatives — and certainly the local election results this year show that the decision which was made was the right one”.

Wakeford says he has “a strong record” of what he has done for the Jewish community “as me”, whichever party he was sitting for at the time, and reports good reactions when canvassing in Jewish stronghold neighbourhoods. Those who were unhappy during the Corbyn years, he says, now generally accept that Sir Keir Starmer has done his utmost to rid Labour of antisemitism.
He points to “good relations” with the organised Jewish community and says he is “incredibly proud” to have represented them since 2019. And he decries the Conservative choice of Rabbi Saunders as a way of perhaps picking up strictly Orthodox votes as “cynical. I’ve got good relationships with the Charedi community as well as the mainstream Jewish community, and am getting a good response”.

On the doorstep, the two main candidates for Bury South face different challenges. For Rabbi Saunders it’s an issue of working with the wider, non-Jewish community, and offering support for Rishi Sunak’s proposals to introduce national service for young people — with the added proviso that he hopes yeshiva or seminary students in the Jewish community will be able to express their service through those institutions. He is also keen “to do something to stop the small boats and the dreadful trade by gangs of people smugglers”, while acknowledging that many voters — like himself, whose father escaped Nazi Germany — come from refugee families.

For Christian Wakeford it will be a matter of capitalising on his record. Drily, he reports that the Jewish community hustings will only invite candidates whose party has had at least five MPs in the last parliament. Which means that the hustings will consist of Christian Wakeford, Rabbi Arnold Sanders, and the Liberal Democrat, Andrew Page.

  • 4 June, 2024