We are at a critical juncture. Polls indicate that people who have supported the Conservatives in the past are becoming increasingly disaffected with Boris Johnson and his party. Allegations of corruption, added to a mounting pile of broken promises from the Prime Minister, have seemingly chipped away at Conservative support. Ipsos Mori research during the Owen Paterson row showed the Tories losing their opinion poll lead to Labour, and polling towards the end of November by Survation and Savanta ComRes had the two main parties at level pegging, while Opinium had Labour two points ahead.
These polls seem to have been borne out in the Old Bexley and Sidcup by-election on Thursday. The Tories unsurprisingly held the seat, which has historically been a safe, true-blue constituency. But the late James Brokenshire was returned in 2019 with 65% of the vote and a majority of nearly 19,000, and that majority was cut to 4,478 and the vote share fell to 52% this week. Labour increased its vote share from 23.5% to 30.9% with a 10.3% swing towards Keir Starmer’s party. Importantly, turnout in south-east London was low at just 34% and, as well as being lower than any other parliamentary by-election this year, it was also poor when compared against other December by-elections.
A substantial chunk of Tory voters, then, did not turn up. This suggests a large number are not enthusiastic about the ruling party, dogged as it has been by sleaze and corruption allegations. They had “weak motivation”, a Conservative councillor on the ground said. Labour’s Ellie Reeves said: “If replicated at a general election, Labour would be within reach of forming a majority government.” While this might be true, it should be noted that people vote differently in by-elections than in regular elections. They are much more likely to vote tactically – see the Chesham and Amersham by-election earlier this year, for example. The by-election was also well-timed to catch the mood of voters on recent corruption stories, whereas the mood may not be the same in an election taking place years from now.
Bexley and Old Sidcup offers an important warning for Labour. The positive polls are more a reflection of dissatisfaction with Johnson than an increase in support for the opposition. The Ipsos Mori poll in early November, for example, showed no change for Labour as the Conservatives dropped behind Starmer’s party to lose their lead. Given time, a press that is ultimately favourable to the ruling party and faced with a general election, much of that softer Tory vote is likely to return to the Conservatives – unless given a positive reason to back an alternative.
Starmer has drawn, quite effectively, a key distinction between him and his Conservative counterpart in recent weeks. But going after the Tories on corruption and Johnson over his numerous broken promises cannot be enough. Labour must offer an alternative to the current ideological programme, and that cannot simply be a ‘cleaner’ politics with more integrity. Four in ten people thought Johnson and his party were untrustworthy and the Prime Minister was seen as less trustworthy than Starmer in research carried out by Opinium and Ipsos Mori in April. Yet this did little to dent the Tory performance in the local elections the following month. And people already generally have very low trust in politicians, well before the most recent row sparked by Paterson. One Westminster politician calling another untrustworthy seems unlikely to make voters back them.
What should Labour offer? Health (50%), the economy (41%) and the environment (38%) are the three issues most cited as the most important issue facing the country, according to YouGov. That gives a good starting point. The party needs a comprehensive platform – rolling back privatisation in the NHS, protecting people from the market economy, delivering a just transition through a green new deal – showing how lives would be different under Labour. This is driven by policy, not personality. Starmer has rightly criticised the Conservatives for their corruption, and this has given Labour a hearing. But if the party wants to get across the line, polls suggest it must use this moment to give voters a positive reason to back Labour, rather than relying on reasons not to vote Tory.