October 19th was the date of two by-elections, setting up yet more opportunities for Labour to either showcase its strength or for the Conservatives to bounce back following a party conference in which Sunak issued a rallying cry to his supporters. The elections in both Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire came after the resignations of Conservative MPs; in Tamworth, Chris Pincher resigned following a sexual misconduct scandal, and in Mid Bedfordshire, former Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries stepped down following clashes with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Whilst Labour had performed well in previous by-elections and the Conservatives are reeling from defeats, the location of this double header gave a unique snapshot of what the upcoming general election could look like.
Labour had a successful night as they overcame a Conservative opposition in Tamworth and both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in Mid Bedfordshire; Starmer remarked Labour had “made history” and was “redrawing the political map”.
Mid Bedfordshire had been a Conservative seat since 1931 and the result represented the largest numerical majority overturned at a by-election. For such a Tory stronghold to switch hands is no small feat and the manner in which it did so may provide some lessons; affluent long-term Tories swung to the Lib Dems or stayed at home and it is this apathy by the Conservative electorate that would spell a general election defeat. George Osborne had described prior to the election that losing Mid Bedfordshire would mean “Armageddon is coming for the Tory party”; with the fate of two more safe Conservative seats sealed, echoes of the 1997 general election are getting uncomfortably loud and a performance akin to that would indeed spell out Armageddon for the Tories.
Tamworth proved to be an even greater disappointment for the Conservatives with no government having previously lost as safe a seat – the Conservatives had a 42% majority in 2019 – to the principal opposition party in a by-election contest. The fact that Tamworth voted overwhelmingly for Brexit (67.5% in favor), indicates that the Conservative Party is in big trouble; Tamworth was the barometer of the salience of Brexit and all that it comes with for the voters, this result suggests that the Conservative slide to populist rhetoric will fail to woo the electorate.
However, Greg Hands, Conservative Party chairman, noted that despite the fact the two losses were disappointing, “the biggest problem was previous Conservative voters staying at home”. While the swings are significant it must be noted that in Tamworth for example, Labour actually lost votes, and the reason for the loss was simply that more than 26,000 Conservative voters stayed home. The fact that Tory voters have largely not voted for Labour or the Liberal Democrats may suggest that they are not entirely convinced of their viability as alternatives and when the time comes for general election, they may still return.
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