The largest numerical majority to be felled in by-election history (Mid Bedfordshire). And the largest percentage point majority to be felled in postwar by-election history (Tamworth).
This isn’t standard midterm blues for the government of the day. This is indicative of everything I’ve been writing about for the past year and a bit.
Exhaustion. Apathy. Indifference. Stop the world, I want to get off. All of these sentiments capture the state of politics and why Labour picked up ultra-safe Conservative seats last week. And this is likely to crystallise into something awfully dramatic for the Tories at the next general election.
Exhaustion with the cost-of-living crisis. Concern for this issue continues to transcend any other across every stratum of society. It matters in the Red Wall, in the Blue Wall, as well as in Scotland (making Labour’s victory in the recent Rutherglen by-election all the less surprising. As long as the cost of living is king, exhaustion will define the mood at the next election. Britons aren’t ready to move on – nay, Britons can’t afford to think of much else. Immigration may excite those on the edges, but largely those who typically care for little else. And while cynicism about boats, borders and refugees endures among the median Briton, those who make it their political priority remain few.
[See also: Danger still lies ahead for Labour]
Apathy is the state of feeling among most Conservative voters. In 2019 they came out for Boris Johnson in order to “get Brexit done”. Now, little enthusiasm remains for the pale imitation that is “Action Man”. Less than half of 2019 Tory voters believe that Sunak unveiled a strong set of policies at the Tory party conference last month.
At present around 45 per cent of the base say they’ll vote Tory, around 30 per cent are unsure or wouldn’t vote, and 10-20 per cent say they’ll switch Labour. Tory strategists rightly point out that apathy is inevitable when you’re the party of government – when promises collide with practicality. But Tory apathy doesn’t just exist in isolation. Labour has a convincing poll lead as the best party to manage the economy – to tackle the issue that most animates voters. The opposition might not be trusted to solve the cost-of-living crisis, but relative to the government? Without question, it is more. “They couldn’t do a worse job,” as the customary focus group participant would put it.
Indifference. This interacts in a crucial way with apathy. Normally the apathy felt by the governing party’s supporters morphs into tacit enthusiasm as the election draws closer. It did in 1992, in 2005, in 2015, and at other times where the midterm polling position had suggested defeat for the government.
The reason to think this time will be different is the level of indifference towards a Keir Starmer premiership from… the Conservative base. Just half of them find the prospect dissatisfying, while a quarter feel the reverse and the rest don’t know. Tory campaigners hoping to rally the base through “New Labour, new danger”-style messaging are likely to be disappointed.
Stop the world I want to get off. This captures it all. More than two thirds of voters regard the next election as a moment for “change”. Sunak’s bid to claim this mantle in his Conservative conference speech showed he’s at least alert to this overarching sentiment, but he lacks the ability to turn it to his advantage. Unless the cost-of-living crisis loses its status as the pre-eminent political issue – unless it’s replaced by immigration or an issue on which the Tory reputation isn’t in tatters, I ask you: how can you overcome this? Unless public anxiety recedes as incomes improve – and are felt to improve – then once more, I ask you: how can you overcome this?