• Development Intelligence

Three by-elections: what do they tell us?



Like the proverbial buses, you wait for ages and then three by-elections come along at once.


Now we’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, translating Parliamentary by-election results into a future General Election result is almost meaningless; ask the Greens in 2009, the BNP in 2010, UKIP in 2014 or the Lib Dems virtually forever. So before we continue, here are DI’s ‘Top Ten Tips’ on interpreting by-elections:


  1. By-elections are always just a referendum on how voters are feeling about the sitting Government on that day, filtered through what the media has told them; let facts not intrude.

  2. By-elections therefore tell you little that’s useful about (a) the Government’s real (un)popularity, (b) the Opposition’s real (un)popularity or (c) public opinion on any one issue.

  3. The ‘rule of thumb’ is that the Government usually gets a kicking, the Opposition usually does well and occasionally a smaller party or a bunch of single-issue loonies surprise everyone.

  4. If the governing party does well, however, then that is significant.

  5. If the Opposition doesn’t do well, then that is also significant.

  6. If a minor party does well, then this usually means absolutely nothing and normal order is resumed at the next General Election with said minor party returning to electoral obscurity.

  7. If it is an unwinnable election, then most political parties don’t spend much time, money or resource on it.

  8. The party which wins always claims: “This is an historic victory which will change the course of politics for all time”. It never does.

  9. All parties use the result to damage the other parties, even if their own result is catastrophic: “Well Hugh, we may have had a 90% swing against us, lost our deposit and our candidate committed suicide at the count. But really the story of the night is that this is a truly terrible result for all the other parties”.

  10. Any truly meaningful impact of the result is always completely lost on the media.


So how did these three contests measure up? A game of three parts. Let’s deal with the least consequential one first.


Chesham and Amersham


The media uniformly reported ‘it’s planning reform/HS2 wot lost it’. Why? Because the media, so denuded of breadth, depth and quality these days in an era where speed trumps original thought due to the immediacy of social media, all sucked up the self-serving spin of the ‘Fib’ Dems and anti-Planning Bill backbench Tories. (In classic Lib Dem fashion, the party actually supports both planning reform and HS2 in Westminster. But who cares about hypocrisy, there’s a by-election to win!)


The noisy ‘project fear’ around planning reform on top of the existing local HS2 antipathy were of course factors…but second tier ones. There were two much more immediate reasons for the result:


a. The total collapse of the Labour vote: 11k+ votes in 2017, 7k+ in 2019 and a mere 622 now. Odds on most of them went Lib Dem.


b. The Government delaying ‘freedom day’ 4 days before the by-election: if you tell voters on Monday ‘the fun’s off’, don’t expect them to vote for you on Thursday! Amersham, a wealthy Tory constituency, is literally stuffed to the gills with the double and single jabbed desperate for their already booked summer holidays in Greece/Italy/Spain, and parents whose children’s end of year speech/sports day hastily had to be cancelled for a second year in a row, whose children’s exams have been disrupted again and whose children’s departure from primary to secondary or secondary to uni has been screwed up again.


Lovely though it was for the Lib Dems to enjoy themselves for once, it is in the longer term a meaningless result. At the next election or sometime soon after that, the Tories will regain the seat.


Hartlepool


This was a classic red wall loss. A place that has seemingly voted Labour forever, last turning out for the Tories when Cliff Richard was topping the charts with Living Doll, the big film in cinemas was Ben-Hur, Winston Churchill was still alive and young Tony Blair was just six. But in truth its demographics started changing in the 1980s and its solid, blue collar Labour vote has been gently ticking down since 2004.


With the current Labour Party, previously under Miliband, then Corbyn and now Starmer, focussing so heavily on metropolitan elite issues, it’s hardly surprising when a Hartlepool voter told The Times:


“Places like Hartlepool look at the Labour Party and think: you don’t look like me, you don’t sound like me, you don’t share my priorities, you tried to overturn the referendum result, so why should we vote for you?”


It was perhaps the scale of the loss that was so surprising. This is only the second by-election gain for a governing party since Thatcher won Mitcham and Morden in 1982 with the backdrop of the Falklands War. It was the largest percentage increase in post-war history at a by-election for any incumbent government. It may be a record result for many many years to come.


Batley and Spen


A lesson for the Tories: don’t keep having crises in the week of by-elections! Cancelling ‘freedom day’ a few days before Amersham, then getting caught having a Covid non-compliant affair a few days before Batley and Spen. Losing by 323 votes is most likely on Mr Hancock. Up until the last few days, it looked like the Tories would win it reasonably easily. It played straight into the ‘same old Tories’ line that Labour has been trying to use in recent months. This is one the Tories could have won but instead they gifted Starmer some breathing space.


What can we conclude?


Three by elections. Three different results. The Tories still way ahead in the polls but the shine coming off them slightly? Labour clinging on to a heartland seat…just…with a Herculean effort and aided by a Tory meltdown. The Lib Dems just pleased to be off life support. These are politically febrile times.