The results of the by-elections are in. Is change in the air?

By Peter Cardwell, Senior Counsel


Rishi Sunak denies today that the election is a “done deal”, but this is, charitably, positive spin by a naturally-optimistic Prime Minister.  Any Conservative glee at their surprise hold of Boris Johnson’s old seat of Uxbridge & South Ruslip will be tempered with the figures that cannot be denied: taken together, these three by-elections put Labour 21 percentage points ahead, even higher than their 18 percentage point average in the polls, relatively consistent over the past six months. With the obvious caveats that by-elections are not quite the same as General Elections for many reasons, it appears Labour is on the glide path to victory in just a matter of months and Sir Keir Starmer will be our next Prime Minister.

Labour will be delighted about Selby & Ainsty, with their fresh-faced candidate overturning a whopping 20,000 Conservative majority and becoming the youngest MP in the House of Commons with a 4,000 majority.  Antsy Labour figures, previously worried about even contemplating a Labour victory in the next General Election, will rightly gain confidence from these results.

The big upset for Labour, and what they will be both a disappointment electorally and in terms of policy, is the triumph less of the Tories and more of White Van Man in Uxbridge & South Ruslip.  Charging people an extra £12.50 simply to drive their car or van through the Ultra Low Emissions Zone has been a disastrous policy for Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan and the resistance in Uxbridge is clear.  “Conversations” about the policy will now take place within Labour, we’re told, but it is a victory for Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves, whose economic plans don’t include hammering working people with extra charges just to get around, and will see Shadow Climate Secretary Ed Miliband’s star fall yet further, especially with a Shadow Cabinet reshuffle in the offing soon.

There is no doubt that the economy, the NHS and immigration remain set to be the biggest issues in the 2024 election, but Net Zero will increase as a factor in terms of how people vote.  All three major parties and most voters support the idea in principle, but the practicalities of Net Zero – including through the pain of such measures as ULEZ within a cost of living crisis – will loom larger as time goes on.

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Somerton & Frome builds on their victory in Tiverton & Honiton last year, as well as significant success in May’s local elections.  David Warburton’s resignation after admitting taking cocaine (but denying allegations of sexual harassment) made the electoral weather particularly difficult for the Conservatives, but the result in this constituency and the numbers concerned are undeniable, in that the Liberal Democrats are back as an electoral force perhaps not nationwide, but certainly in the south-west.  Their ground game in by-elections is formidable, though Labour bussed in literally thousands of activists to Selby too and remain a force to be reckoned with in terms of door knocking and leaflet-posting.

The big question now for the Liberal Democrats is what their conditions might be for a confidence-and-supply or even coalition deal with Labour.  A uniform swing of some 12.6% is required for even a tiny Labour majority, so a hung Parliament is very possible after the next election. The past 24 hours’ results may not be repeated just so dramatically in a General Election, but change is in the air and the political map is being redrawn in many more than just the three constituencies where by-elections have just occurred.

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