Staff Writer Rayhan Hussain examines the recent Labour by-election victories in Tamworth and Mid-Bedfordshire and what they indicate for the upcoming general election.
The story of the night was clear. These weren’t just your average set of by-elections. The classic caveat that governments perform badly in mid-term by-elections simply did not apply. Two very different patches of the country, two stunning Labour victories in constituencies with substantial Conservative majorities. An interesting quandary perhaps, that these two seats are both hangovers from the Boris Johnson era. Let’s take them in turn.
Chris Pincher, the former MP for Tamworth, was forced out of Parliament after being found to have groped two men at a private member’s club in London. The drama over what Boris Johnson knew, and when, before appointing him as Deputy Chief Whip ultimately triggered his downfall as prime minister. The traditional market town was seen as a test of the Conservatives’ electoral fortunes, a seat held by them since 2010. A seat that has a history of backing the winner; red during the Blair years and blue in the decade since.
And then there’s Nadine Dorries, the former MP for Mid Bedfordshire, and her tantrums over not being appointed a peerage in Johnson’s resignation honours. After finally resigning her seat in August, conveniently coinciding with the release of her political memoir and two months after promising to do so, the battle for her successor was well underway. Labour and Liberal Democrats came out fighting in their campaigns, with both believing they had an equal chance of taking the rural seat. Clearly this was to be a three-horse race.
How the Night Unfolded
At the end of the night, Labour came out on top in both seats. The swings from Conservative to Labour were simply extraordinary and record-breaking. In Tamworth, there was a 23.9% swing to Labour, the second largest swing in Labour’s favour at a by-election since 1945. In Mid Bedfordshire too, Labour overtook a 24,664 Tory majority (the largest overturned in history), marking a monumental moment as they elected their first ever Labour MP in Alistair Strathern.
However, there were some awkward moments too. The declaration in Tamworth was slightly delayed as the returning officer waited for the Conservative candidate Andrew Cooper to appear on stage. Cooper then rushed out of the building via a side door moments after his defeat was revealed, failing to congratulate the new MP Sarah Edwards or stick around to listen to her victory speech.
Starmer Declares A “Political Earthquake”
It was undeniably an astonishing awakening for Labour, with the Tories witnessing one of their worst by-election nights in British political history. No surprise then that Keir Starmer spent time on Friday morning visiting both constituencies, declaring Labour as the “party of national renewal” following 13 years of “failure and decline under this Conservative government”.
The Conservatives meanwhile played down any sense of national momentum behind Labour, maintaining that the country has no enthusiasm for Starmer or Labour. One senior Tory MP told Roar privately that they were “relaxed” about the defeats. “It’s no surprise that people are slightly unconvinced and slightly irked with us [the Conservative Party] at the moment.”
“People know that they [the by-elections] are not going to affect who governs the country”. The view from this Tory source was determined that these results were a protest vote against the Conservatives rather than a permanent shift away from their party. Many of their colleagues will be less than convinced with that assessment.
The Tories are also hanging on to the fact that low turnout, particularly in Tamworth, resulted in many Tory voters staying at home rather than switching their vote to Labour. The turnout in Tamworth was 36% – comparably low when considering typical by-election turnouts. This cannot have been helped by the drizzly weather on polling day, which may have attributed to the less committed Tories staying at home. And this particular problem will be on the minds of Rishi Sunak and his advisors when they eventually decide to call that general election. The risk of their own voters, alienated by years of Tory chaos, staying at home will be a key factor in deciding who gets the keys to No.10 next year.
It’s the economy, stupid!
We often debate whether the current political climate we are witnessing is a repeat of the run up to the 1992 or the 1997 general election. For context, the Tories just managed to cling on to power in 1992 under John Major, despite consistently positive polling for Neil Kinnock’s Labour in the run up to the vote. In 1997, Labour won a landslide victory under Tony Blair. Historians and political analysts when explaining that 1997 landslide point to the events of “Black Wednesday”, the currency crisis of September 1992 which followed the UK’s exit from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism as a significant factor. Memories of Conservative mismanagement of the economy were ingrained in voter’s minds back then in the 1990s. And over a year on from Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng’s disastrous mini-budget, which sent the pound plummeting to its lowest level on record, there are signs that voters are not willing to forgive the Conservatives’ handling of the economy any time soon.
It’s fundamentally clear that the events of Thursday night reinforce current opinion polling. Labour witnessed their second biggest swing since the war. And the fact that the Liberal Democrats were unable to break through in Mid Bedfordshire is a strong indication that their own by-election winning streak is stalling.
Professor Sir John Curtice, the legendary polling guru himself, inferred to the BBC that the scale of the Conservative defeats suggest Labour could be on course for an even bigger swing than in 1997. A Tory wipe-out at the next general election is looking like a distinct possibility.
What we saw in the early hours of Friday morning was the beginning of the end of 13 years of Conservative rule in this country. And perhaps, if these results are replicated in other patches of the country at a general election, the first omens of an impending red wave.