Last Thursday’s three parliamentary by-elections assumed more political importance than ever before in the UK’s electoral history..
Tory losses in Selby and Ainsty, and Somerton and Frome together with a narrow win in Uxbridge raises the question whether the Conservative Party can survive as a party of national government.
There’s a long history of volatility in by-elections which goes back to the 1960s. The Liberals achieved a stunning victory in Orpington in 1962 by taking a solid Conservative seat. Some popular, newly elected MPs, who have won with large majorities in a by-election, fade from view by the time of the next general election. Their victory is often based on the apathy of government supporters who may have abstained from voting or flirted with one or more of the main opposition parties.
Since 2010 the Conservative dominated coalition government suffered some spectacular defeats but went onto to win the 2015 general election. The Lib-Dems paid a heavy price that year with a collapse in their vote share ending up with eight MPs from 56!
For voters, there’s a big difference between a general election and a by-election. Contrary to popular belief the British electorate has become sophisticated. They don’t treat them in the same way. In a by-election, the voters know that they’re not choosing a government and feel free to give the sitting administration a timely reminder of their dissatisfaction. Traditionally, voters use by-elections as a ‘protest vote’ against the incumbent government in Westminster.
In the last three years most by-election results experienced significant ‘swings’ from the party in government to the parties of opposition. If a government lacks a clear majority, by-elections become more important. The loss of a seat could threaten the government’s majority and its capacity to rule. In 1992 John Major’s Conservative party won with a 22-seat majority over Nell Kinnock’s Labour. Five years on Major’s slender majority had whittled down to one as they lost a succession of constituencies in by-elections. By 1997 Tony Blair’s New Labour won with an eye watering 179 majority over the Tories.
Local issues and the personality of the parliamentary candidate may on occasions be more important than usual in shaping the outcome in a by-election. Resident unrest over the roll out of the ultra-low emissions zone (Ulez) in Uxbridge allowed to Conservatives to cling on with a 495 majority.
In 2016 the able and popular council leader Jim McMahon increased the Labour majority in the Lancashire town of Oldham, a seat which UKIP had hoped to take.
In the last two decades there’s been a lot of ‘tactical voting’ going on. This takes place when an elector votes not for their favoured party or candidate, but for another party who has a better chance of winning. This happened last week whereby Lib-Dem voters backed Labour in Selby (with a 20,000 Tory majority) and Labour voters returned the favour by backing the Lib-Dems in Somerton (19,000 Con majority).
Yet some experts have argued that electoral behaviour has become more fluid and unpredictable. For Professor John Curtice party loyalties and the close bond between social class and parties is crumbling. ‘Partisan de-alignment’ and ‘class de-alignment’ has become a central feature of electoral behaviour. More and more voters have become consumerist: shopping around for the best product in a volatile geo-political marketplace.
In a era of post-Brexit, post-truth politics, some voters may protest not just against the sitting government but against the official opposition. This occurred in Copeland in 2017 where a significant number of ex-Labour voters expressed dislike of Jeremy Corbyn and didn’t trust the party’s policy position on nuclear power. Over 2,000 defected to the Conservative Party.
Writing in 2010, the political scientist Peter Riddell cautioned about placing too much emphasis on by-election outcomes. They are a poor guide to what happens at future general elections. Over half the 24 seats which changed hands at by-elections from 1983 to 2009 weren’t held by the winning party at the subsequent general election.
However, recent by-election contest results throw doubt on this thesis. Tory losses with massive swings against the overnment mirror a succession of opinion poll findings giving Labour double -digit leads alongside 1,000 odd council seat loses in May 2023. For John Curtice:
“The tide is still a long way out for the Conservatives and they still have an awful long way to go before they look as though they might have a chance to retain power.”
The government losing two solid Conservative seats has put the leadership even more on the defensive. It has plunged scores of Northern and Midland MPs in ‘Red Wall’ seats into deeper despair and turmoil and caused alarm amongst many more in ‘Blue -Wall’ seats in the suburbs and rural shires like Hexham and Berwick-Upon-Tweed. These by-elections are telling us more than ever before: namely that Labour will win in 2024 with the Lib-Dems winning up to 30 more seats in the South-West of England.