John Curtice: Results leave Tories with mountain to climb

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Labour’s winning candidate in Wellingborough Gen Kitchen celebrates her victory
By Sir John Curtice
Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University

This was another disappointing election night for the Conservatives, with two by-election defeats and two gains for Labour.

Not only did they lose Kingswood, where Labour needed a relatively modest 11-point swing. They also lost Wellingborough, where an 18-point swing was required for the seat to change hands.

In the event, the swing in Kingswood was 16.4%. But that was overshadowed by the result in Wellingborough where the swing was 28.5% – the second highest swing from Conservative to Labour in any post-war by-election.

Big though these swings were, they were not a major surprise. In the second half of last year, the Conservatives lost three seats to Labour thanks in each case to swings of more than 20%.

The standing of the parties in the opinion polls has changed little since then. On average, Labour are still as much as 17 points ahead, little different from where they have been ever since last summer. Consequently, big swings seemed on the cards.

Labour have now made four by-election gains from the Conservatives in this parliament. And while back in May 2021 the Conservatives gained Hartlepool from Labour, the net loss of three seats to Labour equals the three seats the Conservatives lost to Labour between 1992 and 1997.

And those losses, of course, concluded with a heavy defeat for the Conservatives in the 1997 general election.

History is not guaranteed to repeat itself, but between them these two results suggest the Conservatives still have a mountain to climb. Indeed, at the moment, they still seem to be struggling to get even so far as base camp.

The party will be concerned not only by having lost these seats, but also by the scale and manner of its defeats. Its share of the vote fell by a whopping 37.6 points in Wellingborough, the biggest drop the party has ever suffered in a by-election it was defending.

Conservatives must be hoping this was partly a result of what voters felt about the circumstances surrounding the downfall of previous MP Peter Bone.

Meanwhile, the anti-EU, anti-immigration Reform UK party had its best by-election performances by far – winning 13% in Wellingborough and 10% in Kingswood.

These performances are consistent with polling that has recorded a marked increase in the party’s support in recent months.

According to the polls, most of the party’s support is coming from the Conservatives. For every voter who has switched since 2019 from Conservative to Labour, there is another one that has switched to Reform UK.

True, not all of Reform’s support is coming from those who might otherwise have voted Conservative if Reform were not standing. Nevertheless, Tory MPs will now be even more concerned that the determination of Reform’s leader, Richard Tice, that his party should contest all Tory-held seats could cost them dearly.

To fend off this threat, MPs on the right of the party are likely to increase the pressure on Rishi Sunak to ensure that some asylum seekers are flown to Rwanda sooner rather than later.

After a torrid week, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer will be glad of some very good news. He still looks on course to be Britain’s next prime minister.

However, these were by-elections where voters’ discontent with the Conservatives was seemingly not matched in equal measure by its enthusiasm for Labour.

In both Kingswood and Wellingborough, the increase in Labour’s share of the vote was half the fall in Conservative support, underlining how many discontented Tories are going elsewhere.

Labour’s ten-point majority in Kingswood is less than it enjoyed in the seat at each of the 1997, 2001, and 2005 elections, though in Wellingborough the party was on a par with what it achieved when it won the seat in 1997 and 2001.

But apart from the gains and losses, there was another message from the ballot boxes. Voters are not rushing to go to the polls.

Turnout was down in Kingswood by 34 points compared with 2019, the fourth biggest drop since the last general election.

Although the drop in Wellingborough was, at 26 points, somewhat less, the 38% turnout was very different from the near 70% turnout recorded when the constituency last had a by-election in 1969. So high a turnout in a by-election now seems inconceivable.

On average, turnout has fallen in all by-elections since 2019 by 28.1 points. This is slightly more than the previous record of 27.8 points in by-elections in the 1997-2001 parliament. That was followed by a record low turnout of 59% in the 2001 general election.

It looks as though engaging the voters will be a challenge for all the parties in the coming months.

John Curtice is Professor of Politics, Strathclyde University, and Senior Research Fellow, Scottish Centre for Social Research and ‘The UK in a Changing Europe’. He is also co-host of the ‘Trendy’ podcast.

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