By-election bonanza: what we learnt ahead of the general election
With the results from the three by-elections now in, Luca Ingrassia takes a look at what we can learn ahead of an upcoming general election.
As much as the Government will look in the coming days to portray retaining Uxbridge and South Ruislip as a sign of hope for the next general election, any hope is likely to be tempered when set amongst the overall swing away from the Conservative Party. Nevertheless, retaining Uxbridge, even in localised circumstances, will provide a modicum of dignity for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
Unlike his predecessor-but-one Boris Johnson, who faced a similarly precarious set of by-elections last summer amidst Partygate, Sunak can still be confident of the support of the majority of his MPs. Furthermore, his approval ratings are significantly higher than those of his party, and he has no obvious challenger. So as poor as the Conservatives’ electoral performance is, he may remain the best hope of preventing even worse.
The Party may look to Uxbridge and South Ruislip as a blueprint. Labour’s failure to take the seat has largely been attributed to widespread local opposition to London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s proposed expansion of the ULEZ program. The Conservative campaign was able to successfully mobilise this by portraying the by-election as a local referendum on ULEZ, and portraying Labour in turn as the party of ULEZ. The Party will also be hoping that floating voters are yet to be fully won over by Keir Starmer’s Labour. A lot can happen once national campaigning begins, when issues such as the economy and NHS take centre stage.
Losing Selby and Ainsty and Somerton and Frome in two formerly safe seats does however demonstrate the Party’s unpopularity. It will also reinforce predictions of electoral doom, with less than 100 Conservatives holding majorities larger than that overturned in Selby. As a result, we may see a further swathe of Conservative MPs announcing they will stand down at the next election rather than face imminent defeat.
For Labour, the result in Selby and Ainsty is nothing short of outstanding. It is their largest ever majority overturned, with a swing just under 24% putting them on track for majority Government. Not only have they won back Red Wall voters, but are now pushing beyond it to supposedly safe Conservative seats.
But Labour cannot afford to be complacent. Their delight at Selby and Ainsty will be offset by disappointment in Uxbridge, where they couldn’t quite get over the line. They also struggled to push back against the Conservative campaign’s successful mobilising of ULEZ as a local wedge issue.
Finally, the Party is still very mindful of how it is perceived. Its number one priority at present seems to be to position itself as being fiscally disciplined. Policies that are popular with Labour membership have been dropped and/or watered down as a result. Critics of the Labour leadership suggest this approach is insufficient to attract new voters and capitalise on the Government’s unpopularity. However, strategists on the ground in Selby and Ainsty found a number of lifelong Conservative voters switching to Labour for the first time. This suggests widespread openness if not enthusiasm for Labour to be given a chance to govern. However, the failure to take Uxbridge and South Ruislip will mean there will continue to be nagging doubts over the leadership and political instincts of Sir Keir Starmer, as the pressure cooker environment of a general election approaches.
As their revival gathers momentum, Somerton and Frome is the fourth seat they have gained from the Conservatives this Parliament. This will fuel their hopes of picking up potentially dozens of Conservative seats across the South. Their hopes of doing so will be boosted by the widespread use of tactical voting which was evident across all three by-elections, suggesting prominent anti-Conservative sentiment and electoral savviness in the electorate. And should the Conservatives be able to blunt Labour gains and force a hung parliament, the Liberal Democrats may well find themselves with an opportunity not just to expand their political footprint, but to head back into power.
As Westminster slowly ramps up for the next general election, national politics continues to prove as volatile as ever. Copper will continue to provide intelligence and insight to support clients in navigating this turbulent landscape and adapting to change.