24 June 2022

Hammered in Honiton, whacked in Wakefield… how bad is it for the Tories?


It is rare for by-elections to provide original insights. More commonly, they whip Westminster into a frenzy of bad takes regarding highly atypical contests in whichever constituencies happen to be vacant. But occasionally, they do point to something significant.

The results from Wakefield in West Yorkshire, and from Tiverton and Honiton in Devon, have already had a political impact. The Conservative party chair has resigned, and a former leader has called for Boris Johnson’s head.

To be sure, it is normal for governing parties to lose vote share in by-elections – the so-called ‘mid term blues’ genuinely are a thing. What matters is the scale, and both of yesterday’s contests saw the Tories lose more than a governing party typically would.

Yet neither should have come as any great surprise. In Wakefield, early polls from JL Partners and Survation suggested that Labour would win by a very similar margin to that which it ultimately achieved.

The swing of 12.7% from the Conservatives was, in one sense, nothing to write home about. Coincidentally it was the exact same swing on which Labour gained Corby in 2012 – the last time that it captured a Tory seat in a by-election. Ed Miliband’s defeat in 2015 was preceded by no fewer than six Westminster by elections in which the Conservative to Labour swing was greater than 10%.

That said, Wakefield does suggest that Labour’s weak run of by-election results that spanned most of the decade since Corby is now over. What’s more, comparisons with the early 2010s come with caveats.

The rise of UKIP, while not entirely at the expense of the Conservatives, provided at least some votes that the Tories could later squeeze. And Labour’s stronger by-election results from the earlier part of the parliament would in part have been fuelled by socially conservative swing voters (and some traditional Labour voters) that Nigel Farage later peeled off.

Additionally, the 2010-15 parliament saw the Conservatives maintain strong poll ratings on both leadership and economic management – historically two very strong predictors of electoral outcomes – neither of which is the case now.

So while Labour shouldn’t get too carried away – this result is not on a par with the mid 1990s – Keir Starmer will be a lot happier with it than Boris Johnson.

There were no published polls in Tiverton and Honiton, but we are now used to massive surges for the Lib Dems in by-elections, and yesterday’s 29.9% swing was actually smaller than the one in North Shropshire (though still one of the largest of all time).

The strength of the Lib Dems (and their predecessor parties) in by-elections makes Tiverton harder to interpret than a more typical red-blue matchup. It’s obviously bad for the Conservatives, but just how bad – in terms of its implications for a future general election – is harder to say.

Taken together, these results show two very different constituencies swinging hard against the Conservatives and an unpopular Prime Minister. This is not Red Wall versus Celtic Fringe, but simply Partygate, among other things, going down badly everywhere.

But arguably the most significant takeaway was in the patterns of opposition voting.

Labour lost its deposit in Tiverton and won Wakefield on a decent swing. The Lib Dems lost their deposit in Wakefield and won Tiverton and Honiton on a huge swing. This is an unmistakeable hallmark of tactical voting on a massive scale.

By-elections, because of the intensity of the campaigning, tend to see a lot of tactical voting. Parties deploy their resources from around the country to chase squeezeable votes, rather than relying on barcharts. This sort of tactical swing is very unlikely to be replicated on anything like the same scale nationally.

But it doesn’t need to be. Even a relatively modest amount of Lib-Lab tactical switching could flip dozens of seats in a general election. Case in point, from 1983 to 1992, the Conservatives’ vote share fell only half a percentage point, but their majority was cut from 144 to just 21.

Then, five years later, further anti-Tory tactical voting turned what might otherwise have been a more normal landslide into what the late Tony King likened to an asteroid strike.

And while some of that self-sorting among Labour and Liberal/SDP/Lib Dem voters would have manifested itself as national swing rather than strictly tactical voting, it highlights an important risk to the Tories. If voters really want you out, don’t surprised if they use increasingly sophisticated tactics to that achieve that end.

These results should set alarm bells ringing for the Conservative Party.

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Matt Singh is the founder of Number Cruncher Politics.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.