What do the Conservative by-election defeats mean for Keir Starmer’s Labour?

Elliot Chappell
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“They know they are out of ideas and they are out of touch – and if they had any decency they would get out of the way for the next Labour government.” That was Keir Starmer’s verdict on the Conservatives this morning, following two overnight by-election defeats for the Tories. Labour regained control of Wakefield last night – one of those so-called ‘Red Wall’ seats – with a majority of 4,925 votes. Just moments later, it was announced that the Lib Dems had overturned a Tory majority of 24,239 to win the Tiverton and Honiton by-election by 6,144 votes.

The Labour leader described the win in Wakefield as “very important” because “for two years we have been turning our party around and we were able to show the voters in Wakefield that we are a confident party, we are a united party and we are laser-like focused on the issues that affect working people”. Certainly, the victory shows progress when compared with the loss in Hartlepool and the narrow win in Batley and Spen. The near 5,000-vote majority and 12.7% swing in Wakefield are convincing, and will provide vindication for Starmer and bolster his leadership.

As demonstrated early this morning, Boris Johnson is now clearly fighting a war on two fronts. The Prime Minister lost hold of one of the bricks in the ‘Red Wall’ taken from Labour in 2019 – throwing doubt on his much-vaunted electoral ability to hold together a coalition that other Conservatives are unable to. But he also saw a crushing defeat in part of the ‘Blue Wall’, a Tory stronghold in the South of England, where many of his backbenchers in more traditional Tory seats have been feeling increasingly aggrieved by the Red Wall focus and levelling up rhetoric.

As clumsy as these heuristics can be in describing what are in fact collections of quite diverse areas, the defeats show that Johnson is an electoral liability across the country. And poor performances under his premiership – in by-elections but also in the local elections last month – could ultimately mean the end of his leadership. (Oliver Downden’s resignation today could be the first of a series in a bid to topple the Prime Minister.) This would allow the Tories to install a successor and attempt a reset – the potential problem for Labour is that its improving electoral fortunes are tied largely to the declining popularity of Johnson.

Also worth noting is that tactical voting played an important role on Thursday. Labour got more than 11,000 votes in Tiverton and Honiton in 2019 – but last night lost its deposit. Similarly in Wakefield, the anti-Conservative vote swung largely behind Labour and the Lib Dems lost their deposit. If this level of tactical voting were maintained in a general election, the Conservatives would be facing a battle in almost every constituency. Tactical voting is, however, something we see far more in by-elections – where voters feel more comfortable lending their vote to give the government a kick up the bum, safe in the knowledge that they are not voting for that party to lead a government.

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