Labour and Keir Starmer have every right to be excited by Thursday’s by-election results. The West Midlands seat of Tamworth saw Labour’s Sarah Edwards overturn Andrew Cooper’s Conservative majority of almost 20,000 in an area which strongly voted to leave the EU in 2016 and had seen increasing Conservative majorities since 2010. While Labour needed an ambitious 21.3% swing to claim the seat, this target was surpassed with a swing of 23.9%.
Meanwhile, Alister Strathern delivered another Labour victory in Mid Bedfordshire, a seat which has elected a Conservative representative in every election since 1931. Although both the swing (20.5%) and the majority (1,192) are slightly less impressive than Tamworth’s statistics, there are two factors which render this by-election at least equally significant. First is the historical context. As noted, Mid Bedfordshire has been represented by the Conservative Party for over 90 years, rendering it no exaggeration to say that an entrenched tradition has entered a moratorium (brief as it may be). Second, Mid Bedfordshire had been a three-horse race. The Liberal Democrats polled 23%, a predicted competitiveness that prompted Alastair Campbell to advocate tactical voting to ensure a Conservative defeat. Labour’s success despite a strong Liberal Democrat performance highlights the strength of Labour’s position.
As with most by-elections, though, conventional wisdom is valid and worth reiterating. Doubtless, many Conservatives will be quick to remind us that governments tend to lose by-elections, which allow voters to signal dissatisfaction with the governing party without the risk of sending the opposition into office. That is, voters who would prefer to see Rishi Sunak in No.10 to Keir Starmer might be willing to unseat their Conservative MP only until the next general election, when they will once again wear a blue rosette.
Historically high swings
However, this point can apply only partially, and should provide damp comfort to Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives. Both swings in the vote share are historically high even for by-elections. Veteran psephologist John Curtice has observed that the Tamworth result constitutes the second biggest by-election swing from the Conservatives to Labour in history. Notably, this swing comes second to the 1994 Dudley West poll, which preceded New Labour’s landslide victory in 1997. While Dudley West was broken up as a constituency in that general election, all three new constituencies – Dudley North, Dudley South, and Stourbridge – returned Labour MPs for the following parliament.
As Jo Coburn noted on the BBC, echoes of 1997 seem to be everywhere in the current political climate, a feeling that these by-elections can only serve to enhance. More interesting to me, though, are the parallels to 2019. Taking to the lecterns following the declaration of results, both newly elected MPs expressed gratitude to those who had chosen Labour for the first time. Perhaps deliberately, these sentiments mirrored Boris Johnson’s acknowledgement of numerous “Red Wall” areas such as Blyth Valley which turned away from Labour in dramatic fashion in the last general election.
But while Johnson offered a direct (if fatally oversimplified) vision to “Get Brexit Done” that contrasted with Labour’s proposal of a second referendum, this time the policy differences between the parties are less clear.
Competence and professionalism
Upon being declared Member of Parliament, Alister Strathern emphasised that Labour is committed to “higher standards”, likely referring to the standards of public office that many take to have been debased by the Conservatives. Next highlighted was the value of “playing by the rules”, calling to mind the scandals of Partygate and – to those with long memories – Johnson’s prorogation of parliament in 2019. Strathern went on to outline Labour’s desire to reward hard work and ambition – a concept of meritocracy that is fundamentally unconcerned with inequality of outcome, championed by rightwing thinkers. Regardless of one’s political convictions, these points show that the dividing lines between Labour and the Conservatives have become predominantly rooted in competence and professionalism rather than more clearly ideological concepts.
This situation is conducive to voter apathy; while competence and professionalism are inarguably important, many might feel inclined not to vote, perceiving election results as broadly ineffectual. Turnout in Tamworth was merely 36%, and John Curtice has noted that by-elections held in the current parliament have averaged lower turnout than ever before. To highlight, Sarah Edwards won with around 8,000 fewer votes than the size of the previous Conservative majority.
The Tories’ unpopularity
Similarly, it could be argued that Labour is currently profiting merely from the Tories’ unpopularity. Indeed, both Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire had been held by figures who became irredeemably enmeshed in the general sense of scandal that characterised the twilight of Johnson’s tenure. Tamworth was held by Chris Pincher, who was accused of sexual assault and resigned only after a highly protracted period of scrutiny. Mid Bedfordshire was represented by Nadine Dorries, perhaps Johnson’s most outspoken supporter who noted Rishi Sunak’s personal unpopularity prior to the by-election in an attempt to circumvent criticisms of her in the event of a Tory defeat. It is easy to see why voters in these constituencies would want to distance themselves from the Conservatives and offer protest votes without actively supporting Labour.
Furthermore, an Opinium poll has revealed that Starmer’s approval rating is a mere +1%, despite his party enjoying poll leads of around 20%. This suggests that Labour is widely considered preferable to the Conservatives, yet lacks any independent appeal. In addition, in the Mid Bedfordshire by-election, the lost Conservative votes were roughly evenly distributed between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Labour gained 12 percentage points in terms of vote share, while the Liberal Democrats gained 11 percentage points.
Thursday’s by-election results are genuinely historic, and will inevitably enliven Labour MPs and psephologists. However, given low turnout, low approval ratings, and unclear ideological differences, they are unlikely to do the same for many others.