By-elections: Tories thrashed in Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire
BY ABHAY VENKITARAMAN
On October 19th, the Labour Party swept into victory in two constituencies that are traditionally safe Conservative seats. In Tamworth, Labour candidate Sarah Edwards overturned a Tory majority of nearly 20,000, whilst in Mid Bedfordshire, Alastair Strathern fended off both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to win a constituency that has never previously voted Labour. These results can imply a wide range of things, but they all point to one primary conclusion: as things stand, the Conservative Party is on track for a landslide defeat at the next general election.
It’s worth emphasising the sheer gravity of these results. Tamworth was the 57th-safest Conservative seat at the 2019 general election, and the Tory-Labour swing in the constituency - 23.9% - was the second highest ever in British history. The shift towards Labour was similarly monstrous in Mid Bedfordshire, even in the face of a stiff three-way race where both Labour and the Liberal Democrats purported to be the main anti-Tory contenders. The by-election results are broadly in line with nationwide polling, which shows Labour firmly ahead and well on track for an overwhelming victory, dwarfing that of Tony Blair’s in 1997.
It's also notable just how efficiently the anti-Tory vote was distributed. The results in Tamworth echo past by-election results by showing that tactical voting is alive and well. Both the Liberal Democrat and Green votes were squeezed heavily, with voters who were opposed to the Conservatives overwhelmingly coalescing around Labour. In many respects, the results in Tamworth are a mirror image of July’s by-election in Somerton and Frome. In that case, Labour’s vote share plummeted, with the party losing its hold as Labour voters flocked to the only party that could beat the Tories in the constituency: the Liberal Democrats. The results in both Tamworth and Somerton reflect a degree of strategising from those dissatisfied with the status quo. This will reduce the likelihood of costly vote splits when a general election comes – yet another nail in the coffin for the Conservatives.
With these by-election results, trends that have been hallmarks of British politics over the past decade have been thrown into question. Tamworth was in Labour’s hands as recently as 2010, but as Financial Times Columnist Stephen Bush has pointed out, ever since then it’s rocketed to the right relative to the national average. With two-thirds of voters in Tamworth having voted to leave in 2016 and the constituency having a disproportionately high share of homeowners, it’s the sort of seat that, like many with a similar demographic makeup, has fallen firmly into the Conservatives’ hands during the last ten years. As such, the fact that Labour were able to win the seat shows that the post-2010 political realignment that up till recently seemed set in stone has all but reversed.
With these defeats, the pressure will continue to pile on to the Tories. Reeling from manifold corruption scandals, voter fatigue, perceptions of economic incompetence following the calamitous Mini Budget, and continued impotence in the face of the cost-of-living-crisis, prospects of an electoral recovery by the governing party are slim. Rishi Sunak’s attempts at reviving the Tories’ electoral prospects have all but failed. From month to month his approval ratings have gradually declined, with polling consistently suggesting that Keir Starmer is the public’s preferred Prime Minister. Alongside this, the current Prime Minister’s attempts to stem the bleeding have arguably made things worse. Sunak’s watering-down of the government’s net zero commitments was nothing short of a desperate overcorrection in the face of the Conservatives’ by-election victory in Uxbridge. By veering to the right on decarbonisation, he has drifted the party even further away from popular sentiment on an issue that is especially salient within the general public. It also seems to be the case that his attempts at stoking culture wars on issues like trans rights and immigration have fallen flat, with his strategy running the risk of weakening the Tories’ already tenuous grip on the Home County seats that comprise the party’s ‘Blue Wall’. In the absence of a robust economic recovery, it’s hard to see how the party will amass a respectable seat total at the next general election – let alone win.
All in all, these results drive home the notion that the Tories are on track for a decisive defeat. But they are emblematic of a radical transformation of Britain’s political landscape that should be a warning sign for both major parties. The wild swings in public opinion that enabled Labour’s victories in both by-elections are reflective of a political environment in which partisan loyalties have heavily eroded. Voters are more willing than ever to switch parties at the ballot box – a shift that has led political analyst Ben Walker to term the British public a “nation of swingers”. Whilst Labour may currently be enjoying a comfortable polling lead, these results highlight the sheer extent of the challenges that lie on the party's horizons. With public opinion as volatile as it is, if the party, once it enters power, is perceived as being incapable of resolving the plethora of systemic problems Britain is currently facing - whether it be wage stagnation, the housing crisis, or crumbling public services - it too could find itself on the chopping block not too long from now.
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