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16 February 2024

The Tories are still facing electoral apocalypse

Labour’s by-election triumphs in Wellingborough and Kingswood offer the Tories no cause for consolation.

By George Eaton

Napoleon believed that luck was the most important quality in a general. Keir Starmer, not for the first time, has been lucky.

This week began as one of the worst he has endured since becoming Labour leader: the party was forced to deselect not one but two parliamentary candidates. It has ended with the UK in recession and with two Tory by-election defeats. 

Commentators had questioned whether Labour’s lead was starting to unravel: a Savanta poll earlier this week attracted much attention after showing the party’s lead falling by seven points to 12. But last night suggests the fundamentals are unchanged: this is a country that wants a new government.

The Tories’ defeats go far beyond normal “midterm blues”. In Wellingborough, a contest triggered by the recall of Peter Bone MP for misconduct, Labour overturned a Conservative majority of 18,540 and secured the second biggest Tory to Labour swing since 1945 (28.5 per cent). In Kingswood, where Chris Skidmore MP resigned in protest at new oil and gas licences, the swing stood at 16.4 per cent as a Tory majority of 11,220 crumbled.

The last time swings of this scale were witnessed was in advance of Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide victory (the postwar record remains a swing of 29.1 per cent in 1994 in Dudley West). Were the swing in Wellingborough replicated nationally, Labour would gain 361 seats from the Tories, leaving the governing party with just four. In such conditions, the concept of a safe Conservative seat is becoming increasingly obsolete.

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As throughout recent years, the biggest story is one of Tory collapse. In Wellingborough, the party suffered the largest fall in its vote in by-election history (37.6 per cent); in Kingswood it plummeted by 22 per cent. The rise in Labour’s share, as the psephologist John Curtice noted, was around half this level: 19.4 per cent in Wellingborough and 11.5 per cent in Kingswood. 

Even now, some will ask whether Starmer’s party should be doing better. But such is the scale of Tory decline that it may not need to. Reform UK, which won 13 per cent of the vote in Wellingborough and 10.4 per cent in Kingswood (its best by-election performances), is further fracturing the Conservatives’ 2019 coalition. Anti-Tory tactical voting – such a potent force during past Labour’s victories – has returned: the Liberal Democrats lost their deposit at both by-elections (polling below 5 per cent).

Some Conservatives will seek to draw consolation from low turnout: 38.1 per cent in Wellingborough and 37.1 per cent in Kingswood. But the party’s performance is far too poor to assume its support will automatically rebound at a general election. Recall, too, that turnout in 1997 fell by six points and stood at just 59.4 per cent at Labour’s second landslide victory in 2001. Veterans of those elections argue that part of Labour’s job is to deprive disillusioned Tories of strong reasons to vote against it.

Any risk of complacency in Labour will soon be dispelled by its campaign director Morgan McSweeney’s “slides of doom” (as one shadow cabinet minister calls them). In a volatile electoral era, as he repeatedly reminds the party, swing voters can easily swing back. Polls, and even by-elections, are snapshots, not predictions. And any euphoria in Labour will be dampened by the approaching contest in Rochdale (29 February) and the spectre of George Galloway. 

There is no good outcome for the party in the seat: a win for Galloway would return one of its oldest foes to parliament and provide a figurehead for left opposition; a win for former Labour candidate Azhar Ali would serve as a reminder that he was deselected for propounding an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. 

But the fundamentals have not changed: after 14 years of underwhelming and sometimes catastrophic Conservative government, the country appears to have resolved that the party deserves not a second more in power. Whether the government is deemed to have lost or the opposition to have won, the outcome may be the same: a Tory apocalypse.

[See also: How indecision turned toxic for Labour in Rochdale]

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