Sometimes a headline says just what’s in the tin. Shall we jump straight in?
- We pay too much attention to by-election results
It is as important, if not more important, to flag this issue after a good set of results for your own faction. By-elections are almost always the result of particular local circumstances (in these instances two absent and to different degrees disgraced former MPs) and are subject to all sorts of local factors.
Had 600 people in each seat voted differently, had the weather been better, had Reform UK not stood, and we could be facing a very different national narrative – perhaps even “Crisis For Keir”, questions about whether his housing strategy was a vote-loser, and talks about how a Conservative majority could be possible thanks to Labour and Lib Dem vote splits. Suffice it to say, national narratives should not rest on such small differentials.
- That said, it is a genuinely catastrophic result for the Conservatives
No government has had by-election results this bad and then gone on to win a general election. Seats like Tamworth and Mid-Bedfordshire might not be competitive at a general election (though sometimes by-election candidates hold unlikely seats), but the size of the overturned majorities will worry a lot of Tory MPs in what were previously thought to be safe seats.
That means that instead of going out and helping neighbouring MPs with fragile majorities, they are much likelier to campaign in their own constituencies in a general election, and encourage their local parties and activists to do the same. That means that the party’s resources – both financial and in terms of personnel – are spread much more thinly, which makes winning much harder. Holding or losing the seat is almost irrelevant to this, it’s more about the size of the swing – but losing seats really brings it home to MPs.
- Don’t expect much, if anything, in the way of “progressive alliance” electoral pacts
In their overnight briefing, the Lib Dems made a valiant if wildly insincere effort to imply that a Mid-Bedfordshire victory for Labour might owe something to them. There is absolutely no truth to that suggestion in reality: the Labour and Lib Dem campaigns in the seat seemed to direct more viciousness at each other than at the Conservative candidate. The two parties absolutely split the anti-Tory vote – just not by enough to stop a Labour win.
There are very few three-way competitive seats in the UK and so this almost certainly won’t be a major factor in the general election. Almost all of the top Lib Dem target seats are Conservative-held with Labour in distant third place – so the UK’s electoral geography will do what a pact could not.
If Lib Dems and Labour believed the same things, they could be one party. They do not, and the divisions are often most strongly felt among party activists. Labour activists often note, entirely reasonably, that the Lib Dem leader has been a cabinet minister in an earlier incarnation of this government, which makes his positioning as a key way to stop it look somewhat odd to them. The “progressive alliance” is dead (and always was), and that’s not a failing of either party.
- “No complacency” is the one good bit of the 1990s Labour playbook to come back
Triumphalism looks awful. Neither by-elections nor polling is destiny. Voters have to feel like parties are trying to win their support and win their votes – meaning any talk of a Labour government being in any way inevitable is bad politics as well as bad for those of us who are superstitious.
In the run-up to the 1997 election many in the party complained of a strangely funereal atmosphere inside the party versus public enthusiasm and support outside – but the “no complacency” mantra was so strongly held that the party fought as if it was trying to survive the election, not storm it.It is absolutely no fun for the people in the party, but it is the right way to go.
- We need to keep an eye on Reform UK
Reform UK took more than 1,000 votes (and the margin of victory) in both by-election seats. That a hard-right populist party with little to no national attention is getting 5% at the ballot box is significant to all parties and should be monitored – the UK has avoided much of the populist wave that spread across Europe (and is now diminishing in many places), but that does not mean our politics is immune to it.
One particular concern will be that the Conservatives’ right flank, already looking for excuses to tack in that direction, uses these results to try to push the party even further from the mainstream on issues like immigration – where some of its existing policies and rhetoric would’ve been unthinkable even 3-4 years ago.
Tacking to the right and over-focusing on Reform UK is not a Conservative path to victory, but it could enable the further mainstreaming of hard-right populism in the UK. That rarely ends well for anyone concerned.