To no one’s particular surprise, the Conservatives have won the Old Bexley and Sidcup by-election. Scores on the doors:
Conservatives: 51.5 per cent (down -13.1 per cent on the 2019 general election)
Labour: 30.9 per cent (up 7.4 per cent)
Reform UK: 6.6 per cent (up 6.6 per cent)
Green: 3.8 per cent (up 0.6 per cent)
Liberal Democrat 3 per cent (down 5.3 per cent)
What does it mean? Well, this by-election indicates two things. The first is that the polls are about right as far as the Conservative-Labour battle is concerned: the Conservative vote is disaffected but not yet really moving to Labour; the Labour vote is up on 2019 but not yet on a trajectory back to government. Essentially, it is everything a dispassionate observer of the polls would tell you.
The second interesting story is in what’s happened to the Liberal Democrat vote, squeezed down to its core, and the absence of a significant Green surge. The unwritten story of every by-election and indeed the 2021 local elections is that the opposition vote is becoming more efficient. The one thing that went right for Labour in Hartlepool is it it kept the Liberal Democrat and Green vote very low. The Liberal Democrats went from a famous victory in Chesham and Amersham to almost nothing in Batley and Spen. And, of course, in Chesham and Amersham Labour recorded its worst by-election performance ever before winning Batley and Spen.
The North Shropshire by-election on 16 December will give us another clue, but I suspect that we’ll see a similar story there: Labour and the Greens dwindling to almost nothing to the benefit of the Liberal Democrats. Will that be enough to win the seat? Probably not, but it suggests that the Conservatives are right to be nervous, and that the Liberal Democrats are right to think that a famous victory might just be possible.
But more importantly, if the same happens in North Shropshire as in Old Bexley and Sidcup, with much greater efficiency on the part of non-Tory voters, then if I were a Conservative whose majority was smaller than either the third-placed Labour vote in their constituency or the third-placed Liberal Democrat one I would be rather worried.
Keir Starmer can’t win an election just through informal cooperation with the Liberal Democrats and by squeezing the Green vote down in the marginal seats: look at Hartlepool for the limits of that strategy. But he can do significant damage to the Conservatives that way: and that, more than the headline polls or the increase in the Labour vote, would give me reason for cheer were I Starmer, or indeed his Liberal Democrat counterpart Ed Davey.