Hero image

A Swing and a Miss

July 21st 2023

By-elections don’t really tell you anything about the likely outcome of a general election, except when they do.

There are a range of factors that might make one take the results in Selby, Somerton and Uxbridge a bit more seriously than one otherwise might. For a start, there are three separate results across a fairly representative range of Tory seats - giving us a snapshot of sorts of where the electorate are at in the places that Sunak has to hold if he is to stay as PM. Secondly, we are probably around a year from a national vote at the dog end of thirteen years of Conservative administration - ‘mid-term blues’ these are not. Thirdly, they represent the closest test we’re likely to get of whether the Labour lead is as soft as Starmer’s critics would have us believe.


So, what tentative conclusions might we draw from the results?

Firstly, Labour is on course to win the general election. The average swing towards them across the three elections was 21%. This would very likely shrink in a general election, where the stakes are of course higher, but even so - this is comfortable majority territory.

Secondly, the Conservatives face an election fought on multiple fronts. The Lib Dem win in Somerton confirms that they are - once again - in play in a whole slew of seats across the West Country. This will put a great deal of pressure on Tory resources in the general election and complicates their messaging and strategy. If Labour are regaining ground in the North, Scotland and cementing their lead in the cities whilst the Lib Dems hoover up seats in the South West, then the Tories could end up becoming the party of Surrey with a few outposts elsewhere.

Thirdly, though, the glimmer of light that Uxbridge presents to Sunak. Yes, ULEZ was undoubtedly a significant factor and yes, the result was close. But Labour lost. This speaks to a wider concern for Starmer and his team - there are a lot of suburban, lower middle class seats where he leads but is not loved. If Sunak can find wedge issues - like ULEZ - to fight Labour on in these seats he stands a chance of preventing a Labour majority. For Starmer, as Labour heads into its National Policy Forum conference, this will serve to prove his bias that Labour needs an abundance of caution so as not to frighten the horses. For his internal critics, of course, it will mean the opposite - that Labour needs make big, bold retail offers to squeezed Britain.

The Conservatives’ success in Uxbridge implies that their near-term electoral calculations will continue to supersede supposed long-term policy goals. Net zero is surely now under serious threat as a concept in Conservative circles; only the continued resistance of senior figures including the Prime Minister is holding back the tide of anti-green sentiment, and that might not survive when the 2024/25 manifesto is drafted.

Expect to see other environmental wedge issues like North Sea oil and gas licensing used to force Labour’s hand and create internal disagreements. There’s a question over whether this might also extend to other ‘hard choices’ – the ones Starmer says he intends to keep making – at a forthcoming fiscal event. You can easily imagine CCHQ policy wonks looking at the ongoing internal battle over the 2-child benefit cap, and musing on what other social security issues could create similar effects.

All in all, then, a good but not brilliant night for Labour - and one that will beg some questions. A bittersweet victory in Uxbridge for the Tories and a morale boost for the Lib Dems. The three leaders will have much to mull as they try to get some rest over the summer recess.