By-elections take the temperature of British politics like no other measure. The three now expected – potentially on the same day – will be a pivotal test for the government and its opponents. They will show whether and how the UK’s progressive majority – our political system has one major regressive party and three major progressive ones (including the Greens) – can be effectively mobilised.
Two of the by-elections are relatively straightforward. If Labour can’t overturn the Conservatives’ 7,210 majority in Uxbridge and South Ruislip – Boris Johnson’s former seat – it will destroy the party’s claim to be on course for a parliamentary majority at the general election. Selby and Ainsty is a bigger stretch (with a Tory majority of 20,137) but could be won if Labour has a very strong campaign. It’s Mid Bedfordshire, however, which Nadine Dorries has so carelessly discarded, that prompts some interesting questions.
Labour finished second in 2019, some 24,664 votes behind the Tories, but nearly 6,000 votes ahead of the Liberal Democrats. This largely rural seat, however, resembles North Shropshire, which the Lib Dems came from third to win in December 2021 after capturing disenchanted Tory voters in numbers that Labour couldn’t match.
Back then, an informal deal was done between Labour and the Lib Dems not to campaign against each other – Labour having enjoyed a clear run in Old Bexley and Sidcup just two weeks before.
But there are now early and potentially disastrous signals that this non-aggression pact will not be repeated. Labour has the resources to campaign hard in all three by-elections at once, the Lib Dems much less so. In Mid Bedforshire a split in the anti-Tory vote could allow the incumbent party to cling on. If this happens, the implications for the next general election could be dramatic.
Underlying all this is the first-past-the-post electoral system, which forces voters to pick the least worst option. Proportional representation (PR) would be the big prize for the Lib Dems as part of any coalition in a hung parliament, but the Labour leadership appears to have categorically ruled out any manifesto committee. The loser will be the side that blinks first, as the Lib Dems demand PR as the price of cooperation with Labour. The by-elections could be an early test of who can hold their nerve for the longest. Such progressive competition is just what the Tories want.
Meanwhile, progressive voters want to back the strongest non-Tory candidate. It’s up to the parties to make abundantly clear in each case who that is. This ought to be relatively easy in the case of by-elections, but is harder during a national campaign in every seat. If the non-Tory parties can’t work together now, what hope is there later? (Especially if this round of by-elections leads to bad blood among progressives.)
Labour claims to be a national party, capable of winning everywhere. But in our splintered and fragmented society, this is further from the truth than it’s ever been. If Labour can’t win in Mid Bedfordshire then it should get out of the way by standing the thinnest of paper candidates, and focus all its energies on Uxbridge and Selby. To do otherwise is the exact opposite of what Keir Starmer promised in his conference speech last year: to put the interests of the country before the interests of the party.
[See also: Labour’s future will be conservative]