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By-Election Frenzy: Kingswood Labour Candidate Damien Egan on Public Services in Freefall, Upping Sticks, and Starmer’s Purse Strings

Chris Skidmore’s resignation has sparked a scramble in the South West. Can Damien Egan take the seat – and muster some hope?

Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves with Labour candidate for the Kingswood constituency, Damien Egan, on the doorsteps of local residents in Emersons Green, Gloucestershire, last week. Photo: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

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Damien Egan wasn’t expecting to migrate South West for a few months yet. He was still Mayor of Lewisham when he saw the news: Kingswood Conservative MP Chris Skidmore had quit Parliament over the Government’s plans to ramp up oil and gas licences in the North Sea. 

That has triggered an early, February by-election in the Kingswood constituency, the South Gloucestershire seat set to be abolished at the next election – in other words, later this year. 

Egan, who grew up in Bristol but moved to Lewisham after graduating, had been directly-elected Mayor of the South London borough for nearly six years. Skidmore’s resignation came as a “complete surprise,” he told me. “I had to resign immediately.” 

Skidmore, for his part, made headlines not merely for his dramatic departure – but the fact it seemed to be one of the few resignations of this parliament that was on a point of principle.

It offered a contrast to the lobbying, lying and sleaze scandals of Owen Patterson, Chris Pincher, Boris Johnson, Peter Bone and others on the Government benches. (Egan confirms to me that he will not take a second job if elected – moonlighting has brought down several desperate parliamentarians recently). 

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The 41-year old had already been selected as a candidate for Bristol North East, which overlaps with the departing Kingswood seat. 

Does Egan respect his departing opponent’s stance? “Yes, and there’s been a lot of people who have commended him” – including Labour MPs. But the “cost of the taxpayer” does come up on the doorstep, Labour’s candidate said. “There are people who think: ‘you could have voted against things in Parliament. You didn’t necessarily have to call a by-election right now.’”

But the campaign has now become a full-time job for Egan, and perhaps too for Sam Bromiley, the Conservative candidate who is also group leader on the formerly-Tory run South Gloucestershire Council. 

Unsurprisingly, Labour is keen to ram home the rising cost of living – and the perceived breakdown of public services. Access to dentistry is a big deal in Bristol – far more so than London, Egan says.

“Everybody here is impacted by doctors and dentists appointments…There’s no dentist in Bristol, who is accepting new NHS patients. In the whole of Bristol,” he says.

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The dentist he used growing up in Kingswood now charges £20 pounds a month to stay on the books as an NHS patient, Egan claims. “You’ll get a check up with that as well. But it’s expensive. People are recognising that they’re not just paying more tax but then they’re still having to pay for the extras. And the extras here become: going to the dentist.”

On the first night of the campaign, it was snowing. He spoke to a woman and her 16-year-old son. They’ve still got an NHS dentist, but they can’t get an appointment. “She’s just medicating her son on pain relief tablets. It feels like Victorian times,” Egan adds. 

GP appointments are similarly hard to come by, with the 8am phone line rush still cutting off people’s access to primary care. “I don’t think it’s a lot to ask for. Just go to the doctor, to go to the dentist. People just want the basic things sorted out.”

That feeling of slipping backwards as a country is pertinent. Egan says many of the women where he grew up are doing “exactly the same work that my mum would do” – shop work, caring, being dinner ladies and so on. “But they’ve got a lot less money.” 

The feeling of decay, too: the high streets left to wither. “Kingswood High Street is the place that people go to…It [used to be] a proper town centre.”

There’s a “beautiful” historic clock tower on that drag. Last year it had its 100th anniversary. “The thing is, it’s got weeds hanging out of it. We’ve lost a feeling of pride, and people are connecting that with the Conservatives having been in power for 14 years. You can’t deny it,” he adds.

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And yet, Labour offers feel thinner with each apparent rejection of spending commitments. The party says it is committed to tough fiscal rules, and there is talk of Sir Keir signing up to Conservative spending plans. The deprivation Egan sees around Kingswood will be hard to tackle without extra cash – and that doesn’t seem to be forthcoming from Keir Starmer, does it?

“People understand it,” Egan counters. “Honestly, people have told me that they don’t want Labour to be making lots of promises that they can’t fulfil, and be reckless with the economy. People saw what happened with Liz Truss. Look what happened to mortgage rates. 

“They want a government that is going to be cautious with the economy and focus more on how we grow the economy. And that actually seems to be going down better than saying ‘right we’re going to increase taxes and fund X million in this, X million in that. People don’t want to hear that.’” 

Is saying “no” a message that can inspire hope? It seems each time Sir Keir opens his mouth there are accusations of a policy u-turn – including the apparent watering-down of the commitment to spend £28bn a year on green investment, amid a right-wing backlash. Do people have hope that Labour will change things for the better? 

“I haven’t heard about u-turns, but people understand that as we get closer to the election, more detail will get spelt out. People are really looking at what’s going to be in the manifesto,” Egan tells me.

They’ll have to keep waiting past this by-election. In the meantime, his focus, he says, is on promoting growth – new, well-paid jobs and an industrial strategy for industry, and trying to get his hands on some Levelling Up funding for the area if elected. 

February 15’s vote will be one of the first where those without photo ID will be turned away and denied a vote. Is Egan worried it will harm his support? 

“We get the numbers on people who are turned away, but you never know how many people don’t have an ID. I’ve spoken to older people who might not have a driver’s licence or might not have had a passport for a long time. 

You might have some younger ones that don’t drive in and might not have a passport yet.” He is asking voters awkward questions: “Where’s your passport? Where’s your driving licence?” 

Whatever happens with this by-election, or the General Election later this year, Egan appears to have ditched London for good. He is sticking around for the long haul, he says:”For me, this is a relocation. I’m closer to my family. My sister’s got a two year old and an eight month old baby. My nan is 88. I’m going to be home.” 


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