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Thu, 18 July 2024

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By Ben Guerin
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Labour Hopes Huge Double By-Election Victory Will Win Over Undecided Voters

Keir Starmer celebrated with Alistair Strathern in Mid Bedfordshire (Alamy)

8 min read

Celebrating a seismic win for Labour in two by-elections in Mid Bedfordshire and Tamworth, Labour leader Keir Starmer said he hoped it would persuade undecided voters across the country to elect them as the "party of the future" at the next general election.

The Labour Party overturned huge Conservative majorities in by-elections in both Mid Bedfordshire and Tamworth. In Mid Bedfordshire, Labour candidate Alistair Strathern won 13,872 votes compared to the Tories' 12,680, achieving a 20.5 per cent swing and securing the first Labour MP the seat has ever had.

Labour's Sarah Edwards overturned a Conservative majority of almost 20,000 to win the Tamworth by-election, a swing of 23.9 per cent – the second biggest swing since 1945. 

Addressing Labour supporters alongside Strathern in Mid Bedfordshire on Friday morning, Starmer said that voters had seen the "party is changed".

"I'm glad that they've seen that our party is changed that they can put their trust and confidence in us," he said. 

"And I hope that that persuades other voters across the country who may have voted for other parties in the past that the party of the future, the party of national renewal to reject the decline of the last 30 years, is this changed Labour Party."

He hailed the Mid Beds victory as an "incredible result" and said Strathern had "made history".

"This was such a hard fight," he continued.

"It was such a big majority with a three way fight. So thank you to all of you for having that positive case that we took out there. This is an incredible night in politics, an incredible morning. An incredible result here for so many reasons.

"It is clear that the voters here have turned their back on a failed Tory government. They've had enough of the decline of the last 30 years and they are crying out for change, positive change that the Labour Party can bring them."

Speaking before Starmer, Strathern said the Labour leader had taken changing the party "seriously from day one".

"We are finally a party ready for government, ready to deliver change," he said.

Later on Friday morning, Starmer joined Tamworth's new MP Sarah Edwards with a speech to a jubilant crowd of supporters.

The leader said they would accept the victory "humbly", but was clearly buoyed by what he described as a "fantastic" result.

"What you've seen here, replicate what's going on across the country," he said.

"People are fed up to the back teeth up with a decline under this government. They want a fresh start.

"This constituency has spoken now loud and clear: No more of the Tories, yes please to Labour.

"There were Tory voters yesterday who went to the ballot box to vote Labour because they were fed up with the decline and despairing at the party they used to vote for.

"They put their trust and their confidence in us. We accept that victory humbly and go on from here to make the case across the country to usher out 13 years of decline and bring in a positive Labour government and a decade I hope of national renewal."

Keir Starmer and Sarah Edwards
Keir Starmer visited Tamworth to support the Labour candidate during the by-election campaign (Alamy)

The by-elections spell potential disaster for the Conservatives as they look ahead to the next general election, which must be called before the end of 2024.

Luke Tryl, the UK Director of research organisation More in Common said it was significant that Labour had won both seats in the context of splits in the anti-Tory vote and former Brexit tensions.

"It’s not just that Labour has won two of the safest seats in the country, it’s that they have overcome really significant electoral barriers to do so," he said.

"In Mid Bedfordshire, Labour won despite a split in the anti-Tory vote and in Tamworth they won a seat that voted heavily for Leave in 2016 and also trended away from Labour at an alarming rate since the party last held it in 2005.

"All of this suggests that the Tories learnt the wrong lesson from the Uxbridge by-election in July and should have instead focused on what happened in Selby." In July Labour overturned a huge Tory majority in a by-election in the Yorkshire seat of Selby, while the Conservatives narrowly clung onto Boris Johnson's former seat in Uxbridge in a vote on the same day. 

Tryl added that the Tories now have a "new worry" with the emergence of a split on the right. Reform UK got more votes than the Labour majority in both Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire.

"It suggests that, far from dampening support for the populist right, Rishi Sunak’s adopting of rhetoric around 'the war on motorists' may instead have boosted those parties," Tryl said.

Speaking to reporters from Egypt, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the results for "obviously disappointing" for his party, but claimed there were "local factors at play".

"Obviously, disappointing results and not least because our candidates worked very hard, and I know they'll continue to be great local champions in their communities," he said. 

"It's important to remember the context that mid-term elections are always difficult for incumbent governments. And of course, there are also local factors at play here."

"We’ve got a big job to do," Conservative Party chairman Greg Hands admitted in an interview with LBC on Friday morning after the results were announced. 

However, he insisted the double defeat was due to fewer voters turning up rather than people switching from Conservatives to Labour or the Lib Dems. 

"The number of people that voted Conservative is down significantly on 2019, it's not people switching it's people staying at home," he said.

Hands also told Sky News on Friday morning that he blamed "legacy issues" for the defeats, and said he would not resign as a result. 

“The two by-elections were caused by legacy issues that pre-dated Rishi Sunak," he said.

“We just have to find a way to incentivise Conservatives to vote next year for the general election.”

Conservative MP and Energy Minister Andrew Bowie told Sky News there was "always room for improvement" but insisted his party was on the "right course".

"We know throughout history that by-elections have been an opportunity for people to cast a protest vote or to stay at home and not engage in the process," he said. 

"I'm quite sure that's what happened today. We're determined to keep our focus to deliver for British people and deliver on the Prime Minister's five priorities.

"Obviously, there's always room for improvement, but we are absolutely determined. We're on the right course, we're delivering for the British people and people are gonna start feeling that very soon."

Former cabinet minister David Davis told PoliticsHome that while the "odds are against us", he still believed it was still "possible" for the Conservatives to win the next general election.

Not all Conservatives have responded as confidently: A former cabinet minister told PoliticsHome the prime minister needed to "get a grip". 

"Deeply disappointing but I am not entirely surprised given the circumstances," they said. 

"Time for the PM to show some leadership, get into the real world and to get a grip."

Another Conservative MP told PoliticsHome: "[Sunak] is just not up to being PM. He cannot connect with people and time he stepped aside."

Lord David Frost, a Conservative peer posted on X that the by-election results were "extremely bad for my party" and criticised the narrative being set by the leadership.

"The Tamworth & Mid-Beds by-elections are extremely bad for my party, and I don't think it helps to suggest otherwise, as some party figures have done this morning," he wrote.

"The current national polls are dreadful for us but these results are even *worse*. These results show that the national polls are broadly correct and that a strategy of denial is unlikely to work.

"If your voters don't want to come out and vote for you then you don't win elections. It's as simple as that."

A Conservative local councillor told PoliticsHome that "crisis after crisis" meant the party was going to struggle heading into the next general election.

"Truss has done more damage than is even being credited and Johnson’s failure to go immediately didn’t help either," they said.

"Anyone saying that it’s Rishi’s fault lacks a grip of reality. On doorsteps generally people like and respect Rishi, problem is after 13 years of government, crisis after crisis, Covid, and then compounded by partygate and Truss, it’s all very difficult."

They added that they were worried Tory members were "running are out of steam" on campaign trails.

Some Lib Dems may have also been disappointed in the results, as they had previously said that Mid Bedfordshire was theirs for the taking. Labour won 13,872 votes in the seat while the Conservatives gained 12,680 and the Lib Dems took 9,420 votes in the tightly fought three-way race.

However, responding to the results, Lib Dem Deputy Leader Daisy Cooper said her party had played a "crucial role" in unseating the Tories.

“We nearly doubled our share of the vote which would see the Lib Dems win dozens of seats off the Conservatives in a general election," she said.

“The Liberal Democrats played a crucial role in defeating the Conservatives in Mid Bedfordshire, and we can play a crucial role in getting rid of this Conservative government at the next election."

The party will hope to pull down the 'Blue Wall' of Conservative seats, particularly across south west England.

Additional reporting by Tom Scotson

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