On Friday, Labour provided the political world with “history in the making” in the words of its leader Sir Keir Starmer with mammoth wins in two by-elections. A startling result considering the constituencies of both Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire being safe Conservative seats can be seen to have far greater implications for the future of the Conservative Party, particularly in regards to the next general election.
The following piece will examine the historical significance of these results, previous by-election trends, and the importance on the next general election.
The Tamworth seat was vacated after the House of Commons Select Committee recommended an eight-week suspension for MP Chris Pincher after sexual assault allegations. The previous year, Prime Minister Boris Johnson had knowledge of groping accusations against Pincher but still appointed him to Deputy Chief Whip, a move that would lead to a mass Cabinet resignation and ultimately befall the Johnson ministry.
Tamworth holds an important place in Tory history, being the location of the famous Tamworth Manifesto in which William Pitt announced plans to adapt party policy in the wake of the Great Reform Act of 1832.
In the 2019 election, Pincher had won the seat with nearly two-thirds of the vote at 66.3%.
However, in a remarkable turn of fortune, Labour were able to capture the seat on a 23.9% swing, the second-highest ever swing to Labour in a by-election.
Sarah Edwards was elected whilst the jarred Conservative candidate left the stage before the winner started her speech.
Mid Bedfordshire By-Election
If Tamworth was safe, Mid Bedfordshire was as secure as a block of gold inside a safe inside of Fort Knox.
The by-election was triggered by the resignation of Nadine Dorries, who exited parliament in solidarity with Boris Johnson – from whom’s resignation honours list she had been removed – having been a vocal critic of Rishi Sunak.
The seat was hotly-contested, with the Liberal Democrats attempting to put themselves forward as the only viable candidate, commenting how Dorries was MIA for her Mid Bedfordshire constituents by rarely appearing in the Commons, no holding a surgery since the COVID-19 pandemic, and taking months to officially resign.
What occurred next was the biggest by-election defeat in British history.
In a momentous turnaround, Labour were able to reverse a 24,664-strong Conservative majority in the biggest numerical overturn by Labour in post-war Britain. This broke the record set by Keir Mather just earlier this year!
It was the first time the seat had been held by any candidate beside a Tory since 1931 and the first time Labour had won the seat in the constituency’s century-long existence.
Reactions and Implications
Keir Starmer’s attitude to the result was one of cautious optimism, remarking that he was not going to get complacent but that this double-whammy defeat for the government was proof “people are fed up to the back teeth with 13 years of decline under this government.” He added it showed renewed confidence and trust in a changed Labour Party.
Starmer has added that he wishes to emulate Tony Blair, explaining he was hoping to “follow in the footsteps of a leader of our party who took us from opposition into power.”
For their part, the Conservatives explained away the results, with Chairman of the Conservative Party Greg Hands chalking it up to apathy on the part of Tory voters. This claim is somewhat corroborated by the low turnouts; 44.1% in Mid Bedfordshire and 35.9% in Tamworth. Former Chancellor George Osbourne was less upbeat, predicting an electoral Armageddon for the party.
Political scientists and experts have also had a lot to make of the situation. Professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde John Curtice, commonly referred to as a polling guru, noted similarities to the doomed government of the mid-90s. Calling the results “one of the worst nights any government has endured,” Curtice comments that in the last three years of John Major’s tenure, he lost four by-elections on a swing of more than 20% to Labour; Sunak has seen three in three months!
Rob Ford too notes that since 2021, Starmer has a swing rating of 12.4%, “meaning Starmer is now ahead of five of the six opposition leaders who have gone on to win general elections since 1945. He is behind only one – Tony Blair (14.4 point average swing) – and his performances this year have been matching Blair’s best.”
By-Election Performances Over The Past Two Years
The newest results will cause havoc for the government but they have hardly had a stellar by-election record, losing 11 out of 12 of the last by-elections they contested.
Here, we will focus on all by-elections since December 2021, when Labour took their long-lasting lead over the Conservatives.
The Liberal Democrats have made gains over the past two years, able to gain three seats from the Tories, beating disgraced MPs such as Owen Paterson, Neil Parish, and David Warburton.
Since Labour’s lead in the polls, they have retained all defended seats and picked up four from the Conservatives.
In the 2023 Selby and Ainsty by-election, Labour’s Keir Mather was able to win the seat, becoming the first MP to ever overcome more than 20,000 votes.
On the same day, Labour put up a competitive fight in Uxbridge and South Ruislip. Although Sunak was celebrating the retention as if he had scored a 93rd minute winning goal at the World Cup, Labour were just 400 seats short of winning a constituency only previously won by Conservatives and held by a prime minister less than a year previously.
In October, Labour again proved their electoral might when picking up the seat of Rutherglen and Hamilton West. Winning 58.6% of the vote, more than double that of the incumbent SNP. Described by The Times as a “must-win”, Labour’s swing of 24.1% was in contrast to the Conservatives’ -11.1% which lost them their deposit. The result was vital in proving Labour could again establish a foothold in Scotland, making a general election triumph an even more feasible outcome.
Although not a by-election, it is worth noting that 2023 local elections saw Tories lose 1,000 councillors while Labour were able to win both the most councillors and councils.
Where From Here?
The newest results will cause havoc for the Conservatives, who must reflect on losing these two by-elections.
One idea being thrown around is for the Tories to finally cut taxes. Since taking over as prime minister, Sunak scrapped the low-tax economic system of Liz Truss and has stubbornly refused to lower taxes even in spite of inter-party disputes over the matter. This is in light of research by Redfield & Wilton Strategies which found only 21% of those surveyed thought Conservatives would lower taxes, less than 37% for Labour.
Perhaps the sign that Conservative voters were turned off is a signal that in order to hold onto marginal or at-risk seats, tax cuts will incentivise the electorate to vote Tory again.
After all, Sunak has already u-turned on policies, likely influenced by poor electoral performances, such as in net zero targets earlier this year.
No matter what, it may be too late for the Conservatives who feel the Blairite touch of déjà vu as they plunder towards an election at a time of deep unpopularity.
If this week’s results are replicated across the country, The Guardian notes that only about 130 Tory MPs will remain – the worst result for the Conservatives in their history!
MPs such as Michael Gove, Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg, Dominic Raab, Jeremy Hunt, and Iain Duncan Smith are among those who could lose their seats.
As John Curtice has commented: “This isn’t destiny – but it is a pointer and it is a pointer that, unless the Conservatives can fairly dramatically and fairly radically turn things around, then they are in truth staring defeat in the face in 12 months’ time.”