The Old Bexley and Sidcup by-election result is in: the Tories held the seat. This should not be a surprise to anyone, as it is a historically safe Conservative constituency. But 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 yesterday, with new MP Louie French securing 52% of the vote. Labour increased its vote share from 23.5% to 30.9% and we saw a 10.3% swing towards Keir Starmer’s party. Tory MPs will be more nervous from this morning. Reform UK nabbed third place in a seat not representative of the southern ‘Blue Wall’; voters in Old Bexley being generally older, home-owning non-graduates who backed Leave.
Labour’s Ellie Reeves described the outcome as a “fantastic” result, adding: “If replicated at a general election, Labour would be within reach of forming a majority government.” Should Labour be excited? The result is the party’s first double-digit by-election swing from the Conservatives since Wythenshawe and Sale East in 2014. The swing against the Tories was, however, smaller than in the defensive Chesham, Brecon, Witney and Richmond Park by-elections of recent years and the smallest since Sleaford in 2016. It is a result to be celebrated but nothing earth shattering has just happened.
The Tories should be anxious about those who did not go out to vote at all. Turnout was low, just 34%. Not surprising, you might think, given the very chilly weather – but the number of voters heading to the polls yesterday was also low when compared against other December by-elections, as well as being lower than any other parliamentary by-election this year. A substantial chunk of usually Tory-voting constituents simply did not turn up, indicating that a large number are not enthusiastic about the ruling party, which has been dogged by sleaze allegations. This is supported by accounts on the ground, where one Tory councillor said: “The reports our voters have weak motivation, and [are] disaffected with Boris, have been borne out in my conversations with residents.”
The vote confirmed what national polls have been showing over the past few weeks: Conservative support being chipped away at by stories of sleaze. Some of that lost support seems to have gone to Labour yesterday. The by-election was well-timed to catch the mood of voters on corruption – the question for Labour is whether this can be replicated in a general election taking place years from now. As fruitful as attacking the (lack of) integrity of Boris Johnson and his Conservative mates has been, Labour will need to do more in order to take those people turning away from the Tories and convert them to Labour supporters. Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.