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By-Election Winners Share What They’ve Learned On Hoovering Up Votes

(Alamy)

5 min read

Seven unexpected by-elections were held in 2023, allowing parties a trial run of campaigning tactics ahead of the next general election and a chance to test whether the polls are on the money.

Labour held one seat, swept up three more from the Conservatives and one from the SNP, while the Liberal Democrats took one from the Tories, who in turn held only one seat in Boris Johnson’s former Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency, with a significantly reduced majority. 

According to the new MPs who won this year’s contests, tightly “tailoring” campaign messaging to the specific concerns of their patch was key to their success, and is a tactic they believe should be replicated by candidates nationally for the general election, which must be called before the end of 2024

Alistair Strathern, who is now Labour MP for Mid-Bedfordshire following a by-election in October, told PoliticsHome that his campaign met a “deeply and understandably sceptical electorate” following Nadine Dorries’ resignation. 

The former culture secretary took 81 days to formally resign after she announced her intention to do so in June in protest at missing out on a peerage in Johnson’s resignation honours. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak appeared to share voters’ frustration with Dorries when he told LBC that “people aren’t being properly represented”. 

Strathern, a former London councillor, said Labour should take “a lot of confidence” in the fact that voters in Bedfordshire who were “very fed up of being taken for granted” demonstrated that they were “open to the idea of doing something different this time to get the change” at October’s by-election. The constituency had been held by the Conservatives since 1931.

Sarah Dyke, who won for the Liberal Democrats in Somerton and Frome in July, overturning a 2019 Conservative majority of more than 19,000, reported hearing similar frustrations from voters on the doorstep. 

She told PoliticsHome: "It was really clear that lifelong Conservatives were very happy to switch to a hard working local champion.

"They've really felt fed up and angry and frustrated, actually, that they've been taken for granted for too long and time and time again, people were telling me on the doorsteps that they wanted change and they saw me to be that change."

The key difference between a by-election and general election campaign is that with the former, a party can plough all its resources into a single seat rather than having to simultaneously focus on hundreds, but Strathern believed that it was vital individual candidates didn’t lose sight of local messaging when the whole country goes to the polls. 

“Being very committed to putting those communities first I think is a really powerful and useful message to have going into an election year,” he said. 

Since the summer of 2021, the Conservatives have lost 8 seats that they won in 2019 to by-elections. Then-Tory chairman Greg Hands blamed “legacy issues” of Johnson and Liz Truss’s chaotic tenures in Downing Street for their by-election losses in October, and remain hopeful that the pattern won’t be repeated in 2024. 

The one seat the Tories did hold – Uxbridge, where local councillor Steve Tuckwell held it with a majority of 495, down from Johnson’s 7,210 – also saw a campaign fought on a hyper-local issue. Here it was opposition to Labour London mayor Sadiq Khan’s plan to expand the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) to the area. Under the rules, which came into effect in London’s outer boroughs in August, non-compliant vehicles are charged £12.50 per day. 

As well as opposing ULEZ during July’s campaign, Tuckwell hyped up the government’s promise for a new hospital in the borough and pledged to save the local police station. He believes Tories should be attuned to the strengths of candidates who are well-versed on the specific needs of their patch. 

“What they can learn from Uxbridge is that when you’re campaigning on matters of substance The Conservative Party is a party that can be trusted to deliver,” he told PoliticsHome

“ULEZ was a matter of substance, the police station was a matter of substance, the hospital is a matter of substance.”

Tuckwell, who also retains the councillor role he has held since 2018, thinks his “decent track record” in the job did help him “connect” with voters during the campaign. 

“Obviously ULEZ helped, but it wasn’t the only thing,” he explained. 

“When people saw somebody who is a local champion campaigning on initiatives which are important to them, they turned to the Conservatives. Yes it was a narrow victory, but it was a victory nonetheless.” 

While he acknowledges that there are “great” candidates from across the political spectrum who are “very good people, very committed to public service and they’re not necessarily from that area”, Tuckwell maintains that having “local connections is an advantage”. 

“I’m able to take a temperature and feel it for myself,” he continued. 

“I’m able to understand the unique qualities of a particular constituency and what matters to the constituency because I’m a resident as well. So I feel it, live it, breathe it the same as all my neighbours.I think that it is important to have a local flavour.”

Patrick English, director of political analytics at YouGov thinks that the main thing that can be learned from by-election votes this year "is that the polls are pretty much in the right place". 

Keir Starmer's Labour Party have had a solid 20-point lead in polls for more than a year, and given that, English felt that "the by-elections have broadly gone as we would expect them to go".

He added: "If anybody is looking for 'are the polls wrong?' or 'are the Conservatives actually much closer?' or 'is the public mood different to what is being reported in the newspapers?' I'd say the by-elections line up very well with a general theme that the general public, specifically many of the people who voted Conservative in 2019, are fed up of them and they want rid." 

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