3 December 2021

The by-election dog didn’t bark, but a pitiful turnout suggests problems for Boris

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The voters of Old Bexley and Sidcup have spoken. Or rather, they have mumbled. Despite being besieged by campaigners including prominent politicians the turnout was only 34%. Being asked to vote in a cold December will have something to do with it, but at the last General Election – also held in December – over twice as many cast a ballot.

That will not have been just to do with the weather. The changes in the share of the vote showed a particular disinclination by Conservatives to brave the elements. This is such a safe seat for the Conservatives that Louie French won with 51.5% of the vote despite being 13.1% down on last time. Bear in mind too that the by-election was caused by the death from lung cancer at only 53 of James Brokenshire, who was an attentive and much liked local MP who would have had a personal vote. So that will be a factor in the particular drop in the Conservative vote. 

Yet there is more to it than that. The response to Tory canvassers on the doorstep made clear that many of their previous supporters were making a conscious decision to abstain. They wished to protest at the direction (or lack of direction) of government policy. Many others were cajoled into voting Conservative only with considerable reluctance. 

One who had been campaigning there summed up the response for them as being: ‘We are still Conservative. But is the Government?’ The array of frustrations that might be expected were all raised: Higher taxes; a failure to maintain secure borders as demonstrated by the migrant crossings of the Channel; appeasement of ‘woke’ forces – embodied by the police indulging Insulate Britain protestors blocking the traffic. Second jobs for MPs cropped up as a further irritant. ‘I wouldn’t mind so much if they were doing their main job properly of running the country,’ was a typical remark.

Labour, meanwhile, stayed in second place, with a higher share of the vote but a lower number of votes than in 2019. In other words, progress was entirely by default (not that that stopped some MPs getting a bit over-excited by the ‘10.3% swing’). They failed to capture the zeitgeist with an inspiring message. They talked a lot about sleaze but that just prompted many punters to reflect that Labour is just as bad. Perhaps they might have done better to leave the media push the issue. 

Peter Mandelson made a cutting jibe at the Tories under William Hague’s leadership that they ‘slow any passing bandwagon they jump on’. Then, as now, the Government would find plenty of difficulties and media criticism. But efforts by the opposition to pile in often seemed ineffective or even counterproductive. Failing to win a seat like this one was never going to affect Keir Starmer’s future as leader, but the lack of energy and bite to his party’s campaign does suggest he has a long way to go to convince voters his is a party of government.

What of the other parties? 

Reform UK – formerly the Brexit Party – came third with 6.6% of the vote. Richard Tice, who is both the party’s leader and candidate, claimed it was a ‘massive result’, which might have been something of an exaggeration. It also suggests, with the usual by-election caveats, that Reform UK is not proving an ideal repository for disillusioned Conservatives.

This constituency voted Leave in the EU referendum by a huge margin. But Brexit has been delivered and Tice’s party has yet to establish a new identity. His predecessor Nigel Farage was dubbed by Russell Brand ‘a pound shop Enoch Powell’, whereas Tice is a pound shop Nigel Farage. There are worse things to be, given that Farage had a huge impact on our politics despite never being elected as an MP. But if Reform UK are to make much impact they probably need Farage to come back as leader, or someone else with more impact than Tice. 

The Green Party came fourth. Their vote share nudged up. Perhaps some of the Sidcup Corbynistas are dismayed that Sir Keir has drifted from the path of true socialism. 

Then the Lib Dems did very badly in fifth place. I doubt that is of any significance. The party are formidable operators when it comes to by-elections, but that means picking their battles wisely – piling in resources where they have a chance and not bothering where the task is hopeless.  Lib Dem leaflets often include hilariously skewed bar charts to show that only they ‘can win here’. But even their brand of psephological hocus-pocus has its limits. To claim they were in with a chance in Old Bexley and Sidcup would never have been plausible, so they were the ones whose vote got squeezed. 

What, then is our overall take-away from this entirely un-shocking result? Well, as with the dog that didn’t bark in the night – a lack of obvious excitement does not stop this from being an interesting incident. 

More than anything, the result suggested indifference and a lack of enthusiasm for the Government’s agenda, even in rock solid Tory territory. Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves though. The electorate’s patience with the Conservatives may be wearing thin, but it is not yet broken.

Though Labour may be doing a bit better in the polls at the moment, there remains a grudging acceptance among many voters that none of the alternatives is credible or attractive. Boris Johnson has just about been given the benefit of the doubt by the people of Old Bexley and Sidcup. They have been assured their grievances – which are broadly shared in the rest of the country – will be addressed. If they are not then future by-elections might be a bit more exciting.

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Harry Phibbs is a freelance journalist.

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