Anti-Tory Vote Split Could Hurt Labour And Lib Dems In Mid Bedfordshire By-election
Labour leader Keir Starmer, deputy leader Angela Rayner and the party's Mid Bedfordshire candidate Alistair Strathern (Alamy)
The Conservatives could find that a split of the anti-Tory vote in the upcoming Mid Bedfordshire by-election leads to a victory for Rishi Sunak's beleaguered party, with both Labour and the Liberal Democrats planning to fight hard for Nadine Dorries' former seat.
When Labour and Lib Dems each secured seismic victories in last month's by-elections in Selby, and Somerton and Frome, they did so by focussing attentions on taking votes solely from Tories rather than going head to head with one another. In Somerton, Labour's campaign presence was so scant that the main opposition party lost their deposit with just 2.6 per cent of the vote while the Lib Dems cleaned up. In Selby, Labour overturned a Tory majority of over 20,000 while the Lib Dems appeared to cut their losses and focus the little campaigning they did do in the area on a general election long-game.
Local fury with Dorries' conduct could play a big part in the by-election to replace her, with both Labour and Lib Dem campaigners reporting "huge" anger on the doorsteps with the outgoing MP. But it is becoming increasingly apparent that neither opposition party is repeating recent tactics and stepping back to make way for the other in Mid Bedfordshire, with both staking a claim to be the most likely challenger to the Tory candidate Festus Akinbusoye.
Dorries' formal resignation from the House of Commons was finally confirmed on Monday – ten weeks after she initially declared her intention to resign – when the government appointed her Steward and Bailiff of the Three Hundreds of Chiltern, an arcane parliamentary procedure for formalising the resignation of an MP.
The government is yet to set a date for the by-election due to parliament being in recess until next week, but the vote is expected to take place early this autumn.
According to Sir John Curtice, Professor of Politics at the University of Strathclyde and Senior Research Fellow at the National Centre for Social Research, the prospect of a vote split means the Tories have a better chance of holding onto Mid Bedfordshire than they did in July’s by-elections.
“If there is any by-election where the Tories can hold on to the seat amid difficult circumstances, it’s probably Mid Bedfordshire, because both parties [Labour and the Liberal Democrats] are determined to fight the seat,” he said.
“The Tory vote could collapse but they could still hang on to it. So, perhaps the thing we should be looking at is not who wins, but by how much the Tory vote goes down.”
Labour points to the fact that it has finished second in Mid Bedfordshire in the last three general elections, and argues that the constituency is demographically and geographically different to areas in the so-called 'blue wall' of traditional Conservative voters where the Liberal Democrats have recently pulled off striking victories over the Tories.
A shadow minister who has campaigned with Labour candidate Alistair Strathern recently said voters they had spoken to understood the contest to be a two-horse race between the Conservatives and Labour, and that the idea that the Lib Dems can win “is not really figuring" on the ground.
“It is always us or them [Tories], and that’s what the polling shows," they said.
The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, have also begun to throw their weight behind campaigning in the area, with leader Ed Davey himself knocking on doors with candidate Emma Holland-Lindsay on Monday.
They have sought to pour cold water over a June opinion poll which put the party in third place in Mid Bedfordshire, arguing that the headline figures excluded a significant number of 'don't knows' who voted Tory at the 2019 general election, and who they are best placed to win over during during the campaign. The Opinium poll put Labour in first place on 28 per cent, with the Conservatives in second place on 24 per cent.
One Lib Dem source said Labour had a "natural ceiling" in Mid Bedfordshire because they would struggle to make breakthroughs in more rural parts of the constituency.
The Liberal Democrats also plan to emphasise the fact that its candidate Holland-Lindsay is a local councillor, whereas Strathern is a councillor in London, though Labour activists stress that he was born in the area and knows it very well.
University of Southampton's Professor Will Jennings, echoed Curtice's view that both Lib Dems and Labour going full force in Mid Bedforshire could prove advantageous to the Conservatives.
“If there is a split between Labour and the Lib Dems, it could save the Conservatives from defeat even if they lose 20 per cent of the vote," he told PoliticsHome.
"That is the dilemma."
PoliticsHome provides the most comprehensive coverage of UK politics anywhere on the web, offering high quality original reporting and analysis: Subscribe