By-election results: reflection is on the cards for all parties

The three by-elections held on Thursday were the largest electoral test the Government has faced since coming to power in 2019. Director and Head of Public Affairs Adam Thomas reflects on the results:

The narrow avoidance of losing all three by-elections allowed the Prime Minister to insist this morning that the next general election is not a done deal. However, despite an unexpected win in Uxbridge and South Ruislip providing a glimmer of hope, the results leave some hard questions for the Conservative Party and how it uses the next 12-18 months in Government.

The by-elections allowed all three main party leaders to celebrate a new MP: for Labour in Selby and Ainsty, for Lib Dems in Somerton and Frome, and for the Conservatives in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, giving an interesting geographical spread to the results.

Uxbridge and South Ruislip 

The Conservatives may have been saved in Boris Johnson’s former constituency by the proposed expansion of the Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) by Labour London Mayor Sadiq Khan. Being on the outskirts of the city, many in the seat felt it was unfair to be brought under this policy, which will impose a charge to drive certain types of vehicles in the capital. The Conservatives put opposition to the expansion of ULEZ at the heart of their campaign, which seems to have been the right strategy.

Labour will be frustrated not to overturn Boris Johnson’s 7,210 majority – and there will be questions about their Get Out The Vote campaign given the 459 votes margin of the loss – but there was still a swing in their favour. Deputy Labour Leader Angela Rayner put it down to Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan’s ULEZ policy: “This is what happens when you don’t listen to voters”, she commented this morning. The results may point to a broader issue of how people can afford to switch to eco-friendly measures more generally, which may come up again nationally at future election.

Selby and Ainsty

The morale boost for Labour came in Yorkshire in Selby and Ainsty, which they secured with a record 24% swing. The former Conservative MP there, Nigel Adams, had a 20,000-vote majority. Labour’s Keir Mather is now the youngest MP in the House and it appears that his campaign slogan of ‘A Fresh Start’ resonated with voters. A mostly rural, home-owning seat near the PM’s own constituency, Selby and Ainsty should be strong ground for the Conservatives. However, the effect of ‘long Boris’ seems to have taken hold owing to the chaos of the past couple of years.

Whether this scale of swing will be replicated in similar seats for Labour in a general election is an open question. By-elections typically have far lower voter turnout and this was no exception. A large portion of Labour’s victory can be put down to voter apathy, with many Conservative voters looking like they stayed at home and Lib Dem voters switching to supporting Mather. Nonetheless, Labour’s victory in a leave-voting area shows the Party has broken through to voters who were turned off by its EU position in 2019 and will provoke a great deal of anxiety in seats with smaller majorities.

Somerton and Frome

Somerton and Frome gave the Lib Dems their fourth by-election win of this Parliament. The Conservatives had a disgraced former MP in the seat, as well as broader economic troubles as the backdrop there, but Lib Dems will feel pleased to be re-establishing themselves in the West Country, where they have traditionally done well. They will be keen to suggest that this translates to the party being back in the voting mix for the general election after many difficult years.

The scale of the defeat suggests a fair amount of tactical voting took place, as Labour’s vote dropped by 10% compared with 2019. As Sir John Curtice has pointed out, this implies that voters were motivated by an anti-Government sentiment, using the by-election to register this discontent with the Conservative Party by voting for whichever opposition candidate appeared best able to win. If anti-Government tactical voting continues into a general election, there are very few seats which can be deemed safe.

In summary

Labour’s celebrations are slightly muted today, recognising that elections are tactical and can be swung by a party’s ability to effectively campaign on a single local issue. Meanwhile, despite the two loses last night and the general lack of progress on his five priorities for his premiership, there is no tangible stirring for a leadership contest to replace Rishi Sunak as party leader.

Starmer will certainly be able to go off on his holidays with a spring in his step, but the Prime Minister knows that his destiny is a little more in his hands than we previously thought. The conference in the autumn now takes on even more importance for Sunak as a platform to set out his agenda, with a reshuffled and refreshed Ministerial team who are fully committed to driving forward his policies. Getting his offer and message right will be crucial in encouraging Conservative voters to go to the polls. If he can do that, as he has said, the general election may not be a done deal after all.