16 Feb 2024

Political Insider: By-election bonanza for Labour

Last night saw yet another series of by-election triumphs for Labour in the constituencies of Wellingborough and Kingswood. MHP’s team of public affairs specialists assess what this latest setback for Rishi Sunak means as we head towards a General Election later this year.

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Will Labour be partying like it is 1997?

The results are pretty stark reading. Labour managed to overturn a Conservative majority in the Northamptonshire seat of Wellingborough of 18,500; the swing of 28.6 per cent was the biggest shift of support to Labour recorded since the Second World War.

On the other side of the country in Kingswood – where the by-election was forced by the Government’s former net zero guru Chris Skidmore resigning in a fit of pique over Sunak’s environmental stance – a majority of 11,200 was pulped by Labour.

What will be worrying the Prime Minister is the ascent of the Reform Party. In both by-elections, it secured more than 10 per cent of the vote, the first time it had reached that milestone. Expect yet more calls from the Tory backbenches for a right-ward turn.

Labour have now taken six seats off the Conservatives since July. Over the course of this Parliament the Conservatives have lost 10 by-elections, the worst record of any government in 50 years and worse even than the sleaze stained death rattles of the Major administration in the 1990s.

Things can only get better for Sunak, but Keir Starmer will know that while today is undoubtedly encouraging, some danger lurks on the horizon. The next by-election in Rochdale will not be as easy a ride, a result of the party’s now disowned candidate’s conspiracy theorising on Israel and Palestine.

Labour viewpoint

By Joshua Kaile, Former Labour Political Advisor

They say a week is a long time in politics. Today that feels like an understatement.

This time last week, the Labour Party had just ended its high-profile commitment to spend £28 billion a year on green policies. The Conservatives, Labour left, and environmental groups criticised the move, albeit for varying reasons.

Then, on Monday Labour withdrew support for its candidate in the Rochdale by-election following controversial comments he made about the 7 October attacks on Israel. To make the situation even worse, the decision meant Labour had no time to find a replacement.

All this has led to over-the-top remarks from many commentators about Keir Starmer’s leadership and claims that we are about to see Labour lose their previously insurmountable leads in the polls.

So, this morning as we all look at another two stunning by-election victories for Labour, overturning significant Tory majorities, whilst the problems of the last week haven’t disappeared entirely, they are put into better context.

Labour has internal challenges they need to address, that much is clear. But they are facing a Conservative Government that is showing its age and seeming to have MPs eager for a spell in opposition to work out what they really believe in.

After numerous attempts at rebooting his party, Rishi Sunak seemed to have settled on a narrative that he was starting to turn things around, and that the country shouldn’t mess that up by voting for a Labour Government. But with the country now technically in a recession, the Tories have not been able to gain back any semblance of fiscal responsibility.

Keir Starmer’s Labour Party needed their own reboot moment this week, and the victories in the Wellingborough and Kingswood by-elections look like they have provided them precisely that. Tougher and more regular challenges lie ahead in a General Election, but with May now looking unlikely (what Government wants to fight a cost-of-living election whilst in a recession?) Labour has more time to ensure it is in tip top shape to handle whatever is thrown at it.

Conservative viewpoint

By Mario Creatura, Former Special Advisor to Theresa May

Oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them.

That old political maxim was given new credence in the early hours of this morning when the results from the two Parliamentary by-elections came in.

Unlike opinion polls, by-elections are the chance to see what real voters in a real election context think. Whilst it was clearly not a good night for the Conservatives, beneath the headline result it was hardly a ringing endorsement of Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour.

Turnout was halved in both constituencies by almost the same percentage of Conservative votes. The Conservative voters of 2019 appear to have stayed at home in their droves – motivating them over the coming months will be key for Rishi Sunak.

In Kingswood the votes cast for Labour were more than 5,000 votes lower than they received in the seat in 2019. Now, by-elections always receive a lower turnout, but the size of Labour’s increase in both Wellingborough and Kingswood is almost half the size of the Conservative vote reduction. The voters here were not enthused enough to come out for Labour.

Psephological pundits will be reminding us today that by-elections are not the same as General Elections. The former is often used to send a message, to punish the incumbent. You have to be an especially motivated voter to take part in an election that you know won’t change the outcome of who runs the United Kingdom.

General Elections are a different kettle of fish entirely – expect turnouts of over 70% versus the 30-40% in a by-election. A different profile of voter is therefore engaged, it’s simply more important and therefore the frames of reference for voters will be much wider, and harder to predict.

In so far as we can infer anything, yesterday’s by-election results offer two main conclusions: firstly that the Conservatives are presently losing the confidence of the voter coalition that so successfully delivered them their 2019 victory. But perhaps more importantly, voters aren’t sold on Labour’s vision. They aren’t enthusiastically rushing to the polling booths to endorse Starmer, they’re instead reluctantly ticking the box simply to oust the Conservatives.

Labour will be publicly pleased with the result, but the apparatchiks in Conservative HQ will not be too disheartened – if a week is a long time in politics, then an Autumn election is an eternity away.

The Conservatives will remain determined that it’s all still to play for. The most successful election winning machine in British history is just getting warmed up.

The MHP Public Affairs Team will be keeping you up to date with the latest news and analysis in this important election year. Please contact [email protected] for further information.

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