By-elections are warning buoys, not the changing of the tide. They alert us to dangers but they don’t demonstrate some inevitable political direction.
The Tory defeats in Selby and Ainsty, and Somerset and Frome, both vast in size, confirm what conventional polling has been telling us for some time – that this Conservative government is heading for the rocks.
By-elections are also, of course, protest moments. The raw numbers should remind Rishi Sunak and his ministers that voter anger about the economy and public services is not simply widespread but is deeply rooted and will be hard to shift.
So any Conservatives deriving much comfort from Labour’s narrow failure in Uxbridge and South Ruislip are failing to understand the bigger picture. What clearly happened in the outer London seat is that there were not one, but two simultaneous protest movements, one against the Westminster government and the other against Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London.
Khan’s expansion of central London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez) to the “doughnut” of outer boroughs was clearly causing problems from the start of Labour’s Uxbridge campaign. Its impressive candidate, Danny Beales, distanced himself from the £12.50-a-day charge, which will disproportionately affect older and poorer drivers with older cars. Keir Starmer leaned in Beales’s direction, not Khan’s, by saying now was not the right time to extend Ulez.
But, pending a legal challenge, Uxbridge voters understood that Khan did not intend to back down and that the charge was coming this summer. It was, in the midst of an intense cost-of-living crisis, an imminent threat to anyone owning a diesel car sold before 2015 or a petrol one sold before 2005.
With its web of fines, fees and number-plate recognition cameras, this felt to many voters like a sly tax rather than a public health measure. So Starmer has been denied the double victory he wanted and will be feeling very irritated indeed with Khan. (And how Boris Johnson, who stood down in Uxbridge, will be rueing a missed opportunity to reboot his political career…)
Khan has made it much harder to travel around the capital by car and almost every taxi driver is a vocal campaigner against him. There is often something self-righteous about his tone that is not going down well in London. Given the pro-Trump, pro-Johnson views of Susan Hall, the newly-selected Tory mayoral candidate, Khan is also probably a lucky general. But he should be reflecting deeply on the Uxbridge result.
Returning to the bigger picture, what was noticeable in both Somerton and Selby was how efficiently voters rallied behind the most viable anti-Tory candidates. No formal pact between the opposition parties was needed. In Selby, the Lib Dems won only 3.3 per cent of the vote, while the Greens won 5.1 per cent, compared to Labour’s 46 per cent. In Somerton, meanwhile, Starmer’s party won a mere 2.6 per cent to the Lib Dems’ 54.6 per cent.
Ed Davey, the Lib Dem leader, was right to claim that the West Country was returning to his party; Labour would be wise to save itself money by not campaigning vigorously in those kinds of seats at the next general election. A tacit progressive alliance is not dead.
The Conservatives thought this week could have been worse for them, and they are right. Victory in Uxbridge gives Sunak a little more breathing space and makes it much less likely he is going to be seriously challenged over the summer. It also reminds Starmer of something he knows full well, which is that he has not yet, in the fashionable phrase, “sealed the deal” with the public – and must continue to focus relentlessly on the cost of living.
None of this dramatically changes British politics, yet for both men there were the faint, but clearly audible, tinkles of trouble ahead from these distantly-spaced electoral beacons.