These two middle England by-elections don’t change the story, or even bend it much; but they strongly confirm it. Mid Bedfordshire and Tamworth are not seats you would expect Labour to win unless it was on an almost unstoppable course towards national power. Tick. They are mid-1990s Blair-sized victories. Tick.
Overturning majorities of more than 24,000 in Mid Beds and more than 19,000 in Tamworth is a huge achievement of discipline and organisation, one that senior members of Keir Starmer’s team thought unattainable only a few weeks ago. Bookies were equally uncertain. The Westminster gossip last week had been of the Tories narrowly retaining both. So let’s not be too world-weary.
But does it really matter that the opposite happened? We know that by-elections are utterly unlike general elections. Vote in a by-election and you are not voting to change tax rates, or to increase investment in your local hospital, or to shift national policy on Europe or defence. If you bother to vote, you are doing so to express dislike of, or disappointment in, the current lot, plus, perhaps, to offer a small beat of optimism about the alternative. The calculus during a general election is a very different thing.
Yet it would be a big mistake to blithely dismiss these results as midterm blues, “the kind of kicking that all governments get”, as Tory ministers are prone to say – at least in front of presenters’ frowns and microphones.
For one thing, this is no longer midterm. We are heading towards a general election, now probably at the end of next year, but not very far away. The results also show that Rishi Sunak’s bold personal attempt to relaunch the Tory brand at the Manchester conference has fallen completely flat.
Finally, they confirm and seal Starmer’s personal authority. The Tories are not facing a traditionally flaky and disputatious Labour opposition as they might wish, but a disciplined and ruthless electoral machine led by a disciplined and ruthless man. They had better start believing it.
That said, we need to remember that the momentous and potentially catastrophic events in the Middle East are big enough to upend British politics. By appearing during an 11 October LBC interview to give Israel the green light for whatever it wants to do in Gaza, Starmer infuriated and scared quite a section of his own party.
This isn’t just a matter of a few Muslim councillors resigning. For many younger, left-wing voters, the Palestinian cause is iconic and central. There are plenty of Labour seats in London and the Midlands that could be endangered by some kind of Corbyn-Galloway-Stop the War-style revolt against Starmer and the shadow foreign secretary David Lammy. Some members of the shadow cabinet are concerned.
Team Starmer isn’t naive. The leadership is being advised by, among others, Jonathan Powell, Blair’s former chief of staff and an expert in conflict resolution, and by a clutch of highly experienced former diplomats. But its relative inexperience in foreign affairs, in which every syllable counts, is already showing. One day, this may come to be even more important than the views of the voters of Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire.