A historic set of by-election results on Thursday sees Labour gain two more huge Conservative majorities following the resignations of Nadine Dorries in Mid Bedfordshire and Chris Pincher in Tamworth. Our political research director, Chris Hopkins, runs through his takeaways.
These results create mood music, and that mood is going to be as low as it gets in Conservative quarters.
- Let’s start with the achievement: Labour overturned a 19,634 Conservative majority in Tamworth on a 23.9% swing, and a 24,664 majority in Mid Bedfordshire on a 20.5% swing. The former represents the second highest by-election swing to Labour ever, and the latter is the largest majority (by number) overturned in modern by-election history. Those stats underpin the enormity of Labour’s achievement.
- Is there a precedent? Well, the last time there were three by-election swings of over 20% to Labour, the party won a landslide at the 1997 General Election. Couple the swing in Selby & Ainsty in July with the results last night, and Labour can start thinking about partying like it’s 1997 again.
- For the Conservatives, this feels as gloomy as it could possibly get. Much of the politico chat in the lead up to the by-elections was about how, even if the Tories cling onto one or both of the seats, it’s the swing wot matters, and holding the seats doesn’t necessarily indicate a good night. I guess losing them, then, really sticks the boot in to how bad a night it was for the party and is perhaps real evidence of a party in the doldrums.
- Do we need to apply the usual by-election caveats to these results? Yes, of course. By-elections behave weirdly, especially when all external eyes and internal resources are directed towards one or two seats. They’re prone to out-of-the-ordinary voting patterns, sometimes in the form of more explicit and widespread tactical voting, other times in the form of a direct protest vote. They have lower turnout, often benefitting the opposition who can more easily mobilise its supporters. And let’s not forget the circumstances upon which these by-elections took place, resignations of two MPs that were far from popular and put the new Conservative candidates at immediate disadvantages. There are plenty of macro, national reasons why the Conservatives lost these seats, but let’s not overlook the impact of the micro, by-election-specific, reasons too.
- Ultimately, these results don’t move the needle nationally. Our most recent polling showed Labour 16 points ahead of the Conservatives, and I do not expect that to change dramatically off the back of these results. Starmer leads Sunak by nine points in the head-to-head Best PM metric, and by 22 points in terms of their net favourability. Labour is still streets ahead, but their lead isn’t completely unassailable, and I doubt these results will alter that narrative.
- But these results do create mood music, and that mood is going to be as low as it gets in Conservative quarters. Governments don’t win by-elections, sure, but deeply unpopular governments don’t win anything, including, it seems, by-elections with stonking majorities and, at this rate, General Elections. There’s very little positive spin that can be spun on this set of results, and you have to wonder how it’ll affect Conservative strategy, and how the media thinks about the party, going forward.
- Which leads us to the question on everyone’s lips: when will the General Election be? One would imagine that, after such a bad set of by-election results, Rishi Sunak will be in absolutely no rush to call one anytime soon, to give his party (and the economy) as much time to recover as possible. That makes complete sense, but how many more punches can this government takes before it hits the canvas? A bad set of by-election results here and a bad set of local and Mayoral election results in May would intensify the calls for Sunak to rip off the band-aid and get an election over and done with, although the temptation to leave it as long as possible, have an election in January 2025 and spoil the Savanta Christmas Party for the second time in five years, is surely a strong one.
- Every person I’ve theorised this to has told me I’m mad, but I can see a path to Rishi Sunak not fighting the next election as Conservative leader. A bad set of local election results in May will, in my view, have the Tory backbench vultures (those that haven’t already decided to stand down) circling. A leadership election will be an unwelcome distraction, but if they can unite behind one candidate (I’m thinking Braverman or Badenoch) then I can see the requisite number of letters being submitted to the 1922 committee – a process which can, within the Conservatove constitution, begin from Wednesday’s one-year anniversary of the Sunak administration. If Sunak is taking the ship down, why not roll the dice with a new leader, who better appeals to the Conservative right, and who could easily survive an election defeat?
- Are there any positives for the Conservatives after these results? It doesn’t appear so on the face of it, but low-ish turnout and a desire to believe that vast swathes of your would-be voters stayed at home might do the trick of convincing Conservative MPs that all is not lost and they don’t need to push the panic button (see point 8) just yet. The problem with the assumption that your voters will flood back to vote for you at a General Election, though, is that they may just not. Labour Together’s Josh Simons said, on a panel I was on at Labour conference, that a key part of Labour’s strategy needs to be keeping die-hard Tory voters at home; the party should appreciate these people will never vote Labour, but still needs to position itself as competent-enough for a Labour government to not be such a frightening prospect that Tory voters are mobilised at the ballot box. Starmer and Reeves have done a great job at this, so right now it seems like it’s up to the Conservatives to mobilise their base, rather than just assume they’ll bail them out at a general election.
- A final word on the Lib Dems, although this will quickly pivot into something about Labour. Our MRP model from December 2022 implied Labour were the strongest challengers to the Conservatives at a General election in Mid Bedfordshire, although I wrote at the time that the seat had “a Lib Dem gain written all over it”. I stand by that judgement, but in the end the strength of the Labour campaign and candidate won out. The Lib Dems’ by-election gains have been when Labour effectively stood aside. This didn’t happen in Mid Bedfordshire, and Labour even managed to overcome what was, for all intents and purposes, a three-way marginal to take victory. Their win here is, in my view, far more impressive than in Tamworth, and the size of both of these victories brings a number of seats back into play for Labour that they’d never have imagined being competitive in again.