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10 February 2023

The West Lancashire by-election shows the Tories’ Red Wall strategy is failing

A 10 per cent swing towards Labour is a foreboding result for Conservative MPs in the north of England.

By Zoë Grünewald

It’s been a good week for Lancashires. On Monday 5 February, everyone was talking about the nail-biting finale of the BBC crime drama Happy Valley (thank you, Sarah Lancashire). Today, it’s the people of the West Lancashire constituency who are welcoming a new MP, Ashley Dalton, following yesterday’s by-election to replace Labour’s Rosie Cooper, who stood down in November to take a job in the NHS.  

Labour once again claimed West Lancashire, winning the seat with a majority of 8,326, taking 62.3 per cent of the vote. The win is not a surprise. Polling was steady and the seat has been held by Labour since 1992. Cooper had represented the constituency since 2005, and won a 52 per cent majority in the 2019 general election. As per Ben’s excellent polling analysis: West Lancashire remains a sturdy brick in the Red Wall. 

But the result will nonetheless concern the Tories. It is their worst loss in the history of the constituency and Labour’s best victory. Labour achieved a 10.5 per cent swing from the Conservatives, even in freezing cold conditions on polling day. If Labour’s success here were replicated at the next election, the party would win power with a healthy majority.  

[See also: Dominic Raab’s defenders are wrong – being “tough” doesn’t work]

Not all Tories are fazed. West Lancashire was a safe seat for Labour. The real test resides in the red-turned-blue constituencies of 2019. 

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But losses like this are bad for morale. Despite the energy the Conservatives are expending on the Red Wall, their support is growing weaker. This week, Rishi Sunak appointed “Red Wall Rottweiler” Lee Anderson as deputy chair of the Conservative Party, presumably in the hope of courting northern constituencies. But losing almost 11 per cent of the Tories’ 2019 support in this by-election shows the limitations of such moves in the face of cost-of-living woes and party scandal. Many within the party will be left wondering if they can still find a message that will resonate with voters. This is the Tories’ first taste of electoral failure this year, and it won’t easily be forgotten.   

And what next for Labour? Well, a celebration. A new female MP in the House of Commons. Could the West Lancashire victory trigger a reshuffle? There have been murmurs that Keir Starmer was planning to wait until after the local elections in May for this, but sources have suggested to me that May is a long time away for a leader feeling increasingly confident. Starmer might want to match Sunak’s new appointments, and may be ready to inject some new faces into the mix for the next phase: Operation Government-in-Waiting.  

One last thing: spare a thought for the Monster Raving Loony Party, snubbed, once again, by the British electorate. While I’m sure they’ll rally, for the Tories, it’s a different matter.    

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.

[See also: Rishi Sunak’s reshuffle won’t revive his political fortunes]

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