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A dead party walking

These by-election upsets reflect the decay of the Tories, not enthusiasm for Labour.

Fraser Myers

Fraser Myers
Deputy editor

Topics Politics UK

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Never take your voters for granted. It’s a lesson that Rishi Sunak seems determined not to learn, no matter how many times voters try to teach him.

Last night’s defeats in Wellingborough and Kingswood, two former safe seats, mean the Tories have now lost 10 by-elections since 2019 – a postwar record. The collapse of the Conservative vote share in Wellingborough – down by an astonishing 38 points since the 2019 General Election – makes it the worst in the party’s history. These severe punishment beatings followed the historic losses to Labour last year in Mid Bedfordshire, Tamworth and Selby and Ainsty – all previous Tory strongholds.

Make no mistake, as considerable as Labour’s gains have been, the real story here is the public disenchantment with Sunak’s Tories, not some new-found excitement for Keir Starmer’s Labour Party. In both of last night’s by-elections, the rise in Labour’s vote share was only half that of the fall in the Conservatives’ share. Disgruntled Tory voters are not suddenly switching to Labour.

All across the UK, voters are abandoning the Tories because the Tories have abandoned them. In 2019, they voted for a party that promised a populist programme of ‘Getting Brexit Done’ and ‘Levelling Up’ left-behind Britain. As a result, Boris Johnson’s Conservatives seized the Red Wall for the first time in a century, attracted masses of working-class voters and forced Labour to its lowest share of seats since the 1930s.

The trust voters invested in the Conservatives has since been systematically squandered. Support for the Tories began to ebb away following the pandemic, especially amid the Partygate scandal, where Johnson and other leading Tories were revealed to have ignored the lockdown rules they had imposed on the public.

But the collapse really came after the clueless coup that brought Johnson down in 2022 (at the time, the Tories were just six points behind Labour – poll numbers they would kill for today). Every man and his dog suddenly fancied themselves as Tory leader. Liz Truss’s kamikaze mini-budget made way for the tepid technocrat, Rishi Sunak. Millions may have voted for a populist, anti-establishment government, but they have ended up with reheated Cameroonism, albeit with some ineffectual posturing about ‘stopping the boats’ on top.

So where do these voters go now? A few are moving to Labour. Some are backing Reform, the successor to the Brexit Party. Indeed, in these by-elections, Reform achieved vote shares in the double digits for the first time, matching the levels it has been polling at nationally – with 13 per cent in Wellingborough and 10 per cent in Kingswood. Some in the Westminster bubble had been arguing that Reform’s polling was a mirage that would disappear in the voting booth. But last night’s results show that Reform stands to inflict some serious damage on the Tories.

But by far the biggest takeaway from last night is that voters are demoralised and uninspired by what’s on offer. As polling guru Sir John Curtice notes, turnout in recent by-elections has fallen significantly. On average, over the course of this parliament, just 28 per cent of voters have shown up to cast a vote.

This disillusionment with the main parties is especially acute among working-class voters – that bedrock of support for Brexit and the 2019 Tories. Polls suggest that just 44 per cent of working-class voters who voted Conservative in 2019 will do so again at the next election. But they are not flocking to Starmer. Around 12 per cent of them say they will switch to Reform, and just nine per cent are opting for Labour. The overwhelming majority plan to stay at home.

While working-class voters have been demoralised, many middle-class voters have swung violently against the Tories. This is a highly motivated segment of the electorate that is using anti-Tory tactical voting to devastating effect. You can see this in the near absence of the Liberal Democrat vote in both Wellingborough and Kingswood last night – with the Lib Dems managing just 4.7 per cent and 3.5 per cent respectively. In contrast, when the Lib Dems won in Somerton and Frome last year, Labour was pushed all the way down to fifth place, with a measly 2.6 per cent of the vote. Bourgeois anti-Toryism will be a rejuvenated force at the next election, particularly given the understandable demoralisation of many working-class voters.

The staggering scale of the Tory losses seems almost certain to sweep Starmer into Downing Street when the election comes, despite the public’s limited enthusiasm for him. But the speed of the Conservative collapse surely offers a warning to Labour, too. It shows that in these volatile political times, when millions of people have broken free from their old party allegiances, voters cannot be taken for granted. A party’s prospects can fall just as quickly as they rose. Anyone who imagines that Starmerism will satisfy this restive electorate is in for a very rude awakening.

Fraser Myers is deputy editor at spiked and host of the spiked podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @FraserMyers.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics UK

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