‘By’ Bye Baby: how recent by-election results could indicate Tory losses in the upcoming election

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Following a spate of Labour victories in recent by-elections, it is worth considering how these results might inform and affect the impending general election, set to be called no later than January 2025.

Even the presence of this many by-elections is an alarming statistic for the current government, which has presided over ten by-elections during this parliament, more than any other government in the last 50 years. And of these ten elections, they have lost nine. Labour, by comparison, has won 6 seats — some by almost historical margins — and the opposition’s two most recent wins have not been exceptions to this positive trend.

This is the largest swing from Tory to Labour since 1994 and the second largest since the Second World War

Wellingborough, a constituency in Northamptonshire, called for a by-election following the recall of former Tory MP Peter Bone, who was suspended from parliament for six weeks following allegations of sexual misconduct. Helen Harrison was the candidate for the incumbent Tories, whilst Gen Kitchen stood for Labour. In the election that ensued on the 15th February 2024, Kitchen won by 13,844 votes to 7408, overturning a majority of 18,000 seats. 

This is the largest swing from Tory to Labour since 1994 and the second largest since the Second World War. In Ms Kitchen’s words, it is a ‘stunning victory’. It can be said to mark an ongoing trend in public opinion that seems to favour Labour, seen even in traditionally ‘safe’ Conservative seats — as Wellingborough has been considered since 2010. Kingswood, in South Gloucestershire, also held a by-election on the same day as its MP, Conservative Chris Skidmore, resigned in an environmental protest over Sunak’s recent bill to issue new oil and gas licenses. 

Mr Sunak is “staring down the barrel of a major defeat whenever the general election arrives.”

Similarly, Kingswood was the site of another Labour success. Damien Egan, the winning Labour candidate, overturned a majority of over 11,000 to win by 11,176 votes to his opponent’s — Sam Bromiley — 8,675 votes. Again, this can be seen as a positive start to Labour’s long-term election trajectory. In an area that is becoming increasingly run-down, with long queues to sign up for NHS dentists, there is clearly an appetite for a renewed emphasis on services and the state in general. This shift is likely to be reflected more widely across the country and in general election results.

Many political commentators agree, too, that these by-election results indicate an approaching general election victory. The Financial Times has described their by-election wins as part of “Labour’s ascendancy”. At the same time, Sky News has suggested that Mr Sunak is “staring down the barrel of a major defeat whenever the general election arrives.” However, things might not be as rosy for Labour as these by-election results suggest.

Labour will have to work especially hard to remind voters that they present a viable alternative

For a start, electoral turnout was relatively low at both elections: 38% for Wellingborough and 37.1% for Kingswood. Results were still obviously positive for Labour — and other recent by-elections have featured higher turnouts — like July 2023’s Selby and Ainsty by-election. A victory seeing Labour win by over 4000 votes with a turnout of 44.4%. But, the low numbers seen on the 15th February 2024 could point to a general sense of voter apathy, which would benefit the Conservative party. After the unsuccessful Kingswood election, Jacob Rees-Mogg remarked to The Guardian, “If you’re a Tory and you stay at home, Rishi Sunak will still be prime minister in the morning.”

After a long period of austerity and a general sense that politicians don’t seem to care about their electorate, Labour will have to work especially hard to remind voters that they present a viable alternative. Suspicion of politicians is not the only startling factor that emerges from by-election results. The newly-branded Reform UK — previously The Brexit Party — scored their highest percentage yet, receiving over 10% of the votes in both by-elections. Although this is potentially more worrying for the Conservatives than Labour — as Reform’s policies are more likely to poach Tory than Labour voters — it still sets up an unstable, volatile atmosphere, which could diminish Labour’s proportion of votes. 

Even these positive by-election results can’t distract from Labour’s current chaos. After “an increasingly toxic political campaign” (as dubbed by The Financial Times) in the Rochdale by-election mired in controversy over their stance on Gaza (which ended in pro-Gaza independent candidate George Galloway winning the by-election), there are many other serious considerations that voters will have to face before the next election results become clear.

Image: Labour Party via Flickr

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