This week’s trio of parliamentary by-elections are bound to be the biggest sampling of voter opinion in an election for Westminster this side of the next general election.
That election is most likely more than a year away. November 2024 is currently the favoured date, although the prime minister could run all the way into the buffers in late January 2025.
In truth in all three constituencies there was a significant swing in share of the votes away from the Conservatives – a 21% drop in support on average – which would have swept them out of power if mirrored across the nation.
As the polling analyst Professor Sir John Curtice put it “the results confirmed the depth of the electoral hole in which the [Conservative] party now finds itself”.
Nonetheless the results were not the total wipe-out which had been widely predicted.
Conservatives are trying to take heart from the mixed headline score of 2-1 rather than 3-0. There was something for everyone.
Each party can claim a success. The Tories held Boris Johnson’s former seat of Uxbridge. That was all Rishi Sunak talked about on his quick victory dash to a local cafe when he claimed his defeat at that general election is “not a done deal”.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats each captured a seat won by the Tories under Boris Johnson at 2019 General Election.
The Lib Dem leader popped up in Somerton and Frome with a typically naff victory stunt as he fired a cardboard circus cannon emblazoned with “Get These Clowns out of No 10”.
Sir Keir Starmer headed to Selby and Ainsty to say “well done Keir” to his namesake, 25-year-old Keir Mather, the Labour victor who is now the youngest MP.
Starmer re-iterated there must be no complacency while simultaneously committing “to deliver” in the next Labour government.
With the help of the performance notes from voters in suburban London, North Yorkshire and Somerset, each party leadership will now review its route map to what it hopes will be success at the general election.
The Conservative tactics are clear. The small boat crossings have not yet stopped, NHS waiting lists are still growing and the prime minister will struggle to deliver on his economic pledges.
Rather than campaign on his record, Rishi Sunak is targeting the notional next Labour government which he says would be worse.
This means totting up spending ideas which Labour has long abandoned, such as the £28bn Green New Deal and pointing to problems in public services “where Labour is in power” such as in Wales and London, without pointing out that his government still ultimately holds their purse strings.
In Ruislip the Labour Mayor of London’s scheduled extension of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) was a gift to the Tories, even if it resulted from politically charged interplay with central government.
Steve Tuckwell, the successful Conservative candidate, ran on the single issue of this potential £12.50 daily charge for those with older vehicles and did not bother to mention the prime minister in his victory speech.
There may have been other local factors. YouGov founder Peter Kellner points out that that Conservatives have done better in this part of the capital which “seems to be linked to Labour’s support slipping among voters with Indian heritage”.
Against the worldwide crescendo of extreme weather incidents Lord Debden, the Conservative grandee and recent chairman of the UK’s Climate Change Committee and Lord Stern, the government’s former climate change advisor, have both bemoaned Sunak’s apparent lack of interest in net zero measures.
The Tories’ narrow scrape in Ruislip, surviving by just 495 votes, is unlikely to change the prime minister’s mind. He may be more attracted to the siren call of Boris Johnson loyalist Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg that “high cost green policies are not popular”.
Labour never took victory in Ruislip for granted and their campaign was troubled, even without some lingering affection for Boris Johnson, their big character former MP.
Their candidate attacked the mayor’s ULEZ scheme. Extra party managers were despatched from headquarters. In the wake of the defeat the local Labour constituency chairman quit with words of praise for Jeremy Corbyn.
The former leader’s brother Piers Corbyn stood in the Uxbridge by-election and was beaten into 11th place by candidates including Count Binface and the TV actor Laurence Fox.
That will cheer Starmer, who is likely to react by strengthening his grip on the party discipline and steer policy towards the centre. Anxious to refute attempts by Sunak and his ministers to link Labour to the Just Stop Oil campaign, Starmer has already said that Labour, including London Mayor Sadiq Khan, need “to reflect” on the merits of ULEZ.
The Tories must be ruing their failure to field a nationally known candidate against Khan in next May’s London Mayoral Election.
History never repeats itself but it does have lessons. On Friday the Conservative Chairman argued that the best analogy was with the parliament leading up to the 1992 General Election.
The Conservatives lost eight seats at by-elections but won them all back on polling day, when the technocratic new Tory leader John Major was unexpectedly kept on in 10 Downing Street as prime minister.
Independent observers note that the scale of Thursday’s victories by Labour and the Liberal Democrats more closely resemble those in the subsequent parliament of 1992 to 1997.
Opposition by-election victories then were harbingers of the New Labour’s massive landslide triumph in the 1997 General Election.
Voters were scared when mortgage rates shot up dramatically due to Conservative policy failures on Black Wednesday, and Major’s popularity never recovered in spite of an economic upturn. Liz Truss’s brief, disastrous, premiership last year may have administered a similar shock and the voters have much less time to forget.
The serial misbehaviour, venality and dishonesty of Boris Johnson’s time in office far outdo the ministerial “back to basics” peccadilloes which undermined Major’s premiership.
Recent by-elections certainly indicate that voters outside the capital have had enough of all that.
Starmer needs a swing as big as that which gave Tony Blair his majority of 165 just to have an overall majority of one seat. He also lacks Blair’s charisma too, in spite of the pair’s recent public love-in.
But the enormity of his victory in the Tory heartland of Selby suggests that the electorate may be prepared to give Starmer the size of victory he needs. His less arrogant, more cautious and painstaking approach may be better suited to the era of the cost of living crisis.
The parties are urging their supporters to stay loyal to them come what may. The voters are ignoring them. There was large scale tactical voting against the Conservatives in these by-elections.
The Liberal Democrats lost their deposits in Uxbridge and Selby and Labour lost theirs in Somerton. In all three constituencies the Green Party got more votes than the squeezed party.
Some in Labour are blaming the “selfish” Greens and Lib Dems for costing them Uxbridge because they each had more votes than the Tory’s margin of victory. As the leading party rejecting any talk of pacts between parties, this is wanting to have it both ways. Votes are not in the gift of any party.
Meanwhile the Tories are spinning that their voters simply stayed at home and will turn out for them at the general election. Maybe.
Turnout this week was around 45% – lower than at a general election but respectable in by-elections. Besides, on past form, it takes longer than a year to coax back voters once they have changed parties or decided to abstain.
In the Wakefield by-election Labour beat the Tories in the so-called red wall.
In Selby they beat them in a North Yorkshire heartland. The swing was in their favour in Uxbridge, albeit not big enough. Keir Starmer has also lucked out with the other opposition parties.
A stronger performance by the Liberal Democrats, as suggested by their four by-election victories this parliament, will help tear down a Tory majority. The scandal-hit SNP are set to hand seats in Scotland to Labour.
These by-elections did not change the political weather. They confirmed what has been evident in local elections and by-elections since Boris Johnson and Liz Truss fell from grace and the economic clouds darkened.
What now? More of the same until the next election is most likely.