Britain in numbers

Can Lee Anderson win Ashfield for Reform?

The newly defected MP will shake up an already unpredictable seat.

By Ben Walker

Can “three-party, 30p Lee” Anderson hold his Nottinghamshire seat of Ashfield at the next general election? Not for his elected party, the Conservatives, who are forecast to lose decisively, but for Richard Tice’s Reform UK, which he once derided for splitting Tory votes?

Anderson’s move to Reform at a haphazardly organised press conference was a pale imitation of Mark Reckless’ and Douglas Carswell’s more surprising defections from the Tories to Ukip in 2014. But for an MP to change to a right-wing party polling in the region of 6-12 per cent, pollster dependent, is significant. Such a move lends credibility to Reform and may boost its appeal.

The Ashfield seat is a collection of towns and villages caught on the edges of Mansfield and Derbyshire, north of Nottingham. In its 70-year existence, the constituency has only voted for a Conservative MP twice: once in a nail-biter by-election in 1977, and again at the 2019 “Brexit election”. It hosts a sizeable anti-establishment local party, the Ashfield Independents, which has been orchestrating council politics there since 2019. Even before then, both Labour and the once well-organised local Liberal Democrats were competing with organised independent groupings for control of the council.

Ashfield, then, has an established independent streak. Its aversion to party politics was evident in last year’s council elections, too, when most of England saw substantial swings to Labour in battleground seats. Ashfield, however, elected one Labour councillor (down from three), two Conservatives… and 32 Ashfield Independents.

When it comes to general elections, the last time a winning candidate came away with more than 50 per cent was 2001. Back then, local independents were pulling in a few thousand votes, maybe saving a deposit here or there but that was it. Now they’re coming second, which makes commentary on Ashfield more complicated.

At the last election, the Tories with Anderson got a less-than-overwhelming 39 per cent of the vote vs 28 per cent for the Ashfield Independents and 24 per cent for Labour. Yet it was a stunning Con gain from Lab, with the indies seemingly cleaning up disillusioned, Leave-voting Labour supporters.

The way to interpret these Ashfield Independents is not to give much regard to who’s leading it and their political past – Jason Zadrozny, a former Lib Dem. This is not a Lib Dem-type outfit like the Residents’ Associations hankering to rejoin the EU in Surrey. In fact, the Ashfield Independents’ appeal is not dissimilar to Reform’s and other “shake things up” anti-system parties, locally and nationally, that can prosper in less affluent locales.

So Anderson standing for Reform in Ashfield shakes up an already unpredictable arithmetic, and raises two questions that could tell us how he’ll do. What’s his name recognition locally, and, more importantly, is he actually liked locally?

Nationally, his name doesn’t hold up. And among Tory voters, according to YouGov, he’s more disliked than liked. But the Reform vote in Ashfield, theoretically at least, is there – it’s just at the last count it was split between the independents, the Conservatives and voter apathy. If Anderson is liked and known locally he can unite them with his new party and make a respectable showing, perhaps even win on a really split vote. But if his name is poorly known, and his personal brand is poorly regarded (as he is nationally), then he has no chance against Labour and the localist Zadrozny. Voters need reasons to opt for an alternative to the government alternative. 

His suspension from the Tory party split Conservative voters. A chunk of them will no doubt move with him. But is it enough to win the seat? Not impossible, but very unlikely.

[See also: How dangerous is Lee Anderson’s defection for the Tories?]