By-election blues for the Conservatives


Since October 19th, there has been much speculation over the probable outcomes of the 2024 general election. This speculation has been fuelled by two historically significant by-elections, in which the Labour Party overturned Conservative majorities in Tamworth and Mid-Bedfordshire. While some see these Conservative losses as an unavoidable precursor to a devastating defeat in 2024, others believe they will be able to recover and triumph over the Labour Party.

To determine whether the by-elections are a good predictor of the 2024 general election, it is necessary to analyse both the significance of the numbers in the electoral history of Tamworth and Mid-Bedfordshire, as well as the context behind them.

The 23.9% swing from Conservative to Labour in Tamworth was the second largest in post-war by-election history. Since 2010, Tamworth has functioned as a bellwether for the Conservative Party, and therefore, such an abrupt change in party preference represents a considerable shift in the electorate’s mindset. 

In Mid-Bedfordshire, the swing was slightly lower (20.5%), however there was a larger change in the Conservative’s share of the vote, -28.7%, as opposed to -25.7% in Tamworth. 

So, what might have triggered such an abrupt change of heart among the electorate? According to polling expert John Curtice, two major events may have set the Conservatives on a path to electoral defeat in 2024: Boris Johnson’s Partygate and Liz Truss’ ‘mini budget’.

The first, Boris Johnson’s political scandal, occurred in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, and was marked by social gatherings of the government while limitations on prohibited gatherings were in effect. The scandal led to the downfall of Mr Johnson’s political reputation and, ultimately, his resignation as prime minister. Peter Kyle, Labour’s shadow science minister who ran the Mid-Bedfordshire campaign, emphasised that the Conservatives’ loss of support began when people discovered they no longer reflect their values, such as law and order and the distinction between right and wrong. The Conservatives’ violation of the ministerial code is the most visible manifestation of the party’s breach of values that drew people to it in the past.

On the other hand, Liz Truss’ ‘mini-budget’ controversy was blamed for causing a domestic financial crisis and significantly higher mortgage prices for millions of people. According to Gavin Barwell, former chief of staff to Theresa May, the existential foundation on which this structure is built is predicated on economic competence, which Ms Truss lacked, and so failed to gain support for the Conservative party. 

These two events clearly played a substantial role in damaging the Conservatives’ popularity and reputation, but were they big enough to cause the recent by-election defeats?

Official justifications made by the Conservative party representatives are less concerned with explaining why they suffered such a significant loss in the recent by-elections, and more concerned with assessing Labour’s victories as unconvincing and insubstantial.

A similar low turnout with big swings for Labour was recorded in by-elections from 1992-1997

They point to the poor turnout in the by-elections and assess Sir Keir Starmer as not particularly adored or popular among the electorate, at least not as much as Tony Blair was in 1997. Furthermore, they label Labour’s performance as ‘protest votes,’ which serve as a reminder to the Conservative party to improve before the next general election, rather than as an indicator of their impending demise. Regardless of how compelling the Conservatives’ arguments may be, it is worth recalling that a similar low turnout with big swings for Labour was recorded in by-elections from 1992 to 1997.

In response to the claim that Sir Keir is not as popular as Mr Blair, Gavin Barwell stated that Sir Keir made the Labour Party appear secure and reliable, both financially and otherwise, in contrast to Mr Johnson’s and Ms Truss’ governments. Thus even if Keir Starmer is not as likeable as Tony Blair, what matters according to some is his prospective capacity to avoid existential and economic crises. 

Perhaps not everything is so grim for the Conservatives. While he acknowledges that the Conservative defeat was significant, backbench MP Michael Fabricant warns that the change in leadership may have a detrimental effect on their electoral chances. Gillian Keegan, Secretary of State for Education, goes on to say that the Labour Party has no genuine support among the electorate, and that the normal Conservative voters choose not to go and vote because they want the party to focus on their five goals. 

It is impossible to accurately foresee the outcome of the general election in 2024 based purely on the results of by-elections. While the Labour Party was successful in gaining supposedly safe Conservative seats, they still have a long way to go before demonstrating to the public that they will be a sturdy and reliable custodian of the British economy and the somewhat lost moral principles. Their downfall may not be set in stone yet, but the coming months will be critical for Rishi Sunak and the Conservative Party to deliver on their promises and regain public support. 

Image: Tamworth Town Centre (logopop via Wikimedia Commons)

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