As a general rule, when trying to evaluate the state of public opinion, we should care less about by-election results than we do. When voters go to the polls in a by-election, there is usually very little at stake other than the scale of the discontent aimed at the government of the day. Voters ask themselves the question “would you like to give the government a kick up the backside?” to which the answer is usually yes. If we really want to understand the current state of public opinion, it is much better to look at the opinion polls.
For starters, relying on the opinion polls provides no comfort. A deficit of 18 points against Labour is very grim.
As for the by-election results themselves, these were not just poor but spectacularly bad. The swings away from the Conservatives rank among some of the worst performances by a governing party in history. If looking for historical comparisons, we quickly end up focusing on the period in advance of 1997 and we all know how that ended.
In both seats, there are aspects that are particularly disappointing for the Conservatives. Tamworth may have been a Labour seat until 2010 but it is in a county – Staffordshire – that has become dramatically more Conservative in the past 15 years, in part assisted by Brexit. The north Midlands had looked as if it was becoming a new Tory heartland. Not today it isn’t.
As for Mid Bedfordshire, there was clearly anger with Nadine Dorries but Conservative canvassers reported that this had subsided. The Tory candidate, Festus Akinbusoye was high profile and well regarded. Nonetheless, another huge majority – 24,664 – was overturned.
What was striking was that it was Labour which triumphed, not the Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems have recorded a string of by-election victories, know how to fight such campaigns and are unimpeded by having any national policies that might repel floating voters. If the mood was “a plague on both your houses”, they would have been the beneficiaries. Instead, people chose to vote for the principal opposition. This does not necessarily mean that there is great enthusiasm for Labour but even in true-blue Bedfordshire there is little hostility. This looks as if it will be more than enough at the general election.
So these by-elections do tell us a little about public opinion. But the real significance, I suspect, is the impact on Conservative morale. The Tories’ by-election victory in Uxbridge in July offered some hope for them (even if results elsewhere on the same day were dismal) and September saw a flurry of policy announcements by Rishi Sunak. The party conference season was an opportunity for him to reset the political narrative and gather momentum. But as I have argued before, while the Tories needed a good conference season, it was Labour that got it.
Conservative MPs reported that morale had fallen even in advance of last night’s historic defeats. There is no sense of a coherent plan. Repudiating the anarchic law-breaking of Boris Johnson and the fiscal recklessness of Liz Truss would have helped but Sunak has probably left it too late to cut through. The Manchester conference demonstrated plenty of evidence of Tory discipline weakening as the party moves on to post-defeat debates. Last night’s by-election results may accelerate that process. Rather than closing the polling gap with Labour, a Conservative Party that loses all hope may make matters even worse.
[See also: A late election is not a risk-free strategy]