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Did Protest "Non-Vote" Cost The Tories Two By-Elections?

Keir Starmer and Sarah Edwards in Tamworth on Friday (Alamy)

6 min read

Conservative peer and polling expert Lord Robert Hayward has said he believes a “protest non-vote” for the Conservatives in the Tamworth and Mid-Bedfordshire by-elections aided their defeat, but some data suggests plenty of 2019 Tories would have turned out.

Lord Hayward told PoliticsHome that “there is no question” that the outcomes “are very bad results for the Conservative Party” and said that he had been struck by the low turnout. He attributed this to people feeling “alienated” from politics, and having not forgiven the government for the drama of recent years,

Labour overturned huge Tory majorities in both seats, with Alistair Strathern becoming the first Labour MP in Mid Bedfordshire’s history having secured a 20.5 per cent swing away from the Conservatives, despite their former majority of more than 24,000 and a Liberal Democrat challenge. In Tamworth Labour’s Sarah Edwards overturned a majority of almost 20,000 in the Staffordshire seat on a swing of 23.9 per cent – the second biggest since 1945. 

Labour leader Keir Starmer said the results showed that people were "fed up to the back teeth with a decline under this government. They want a fresh start".

Hayward said that usually “you would describe by-elections as a protest vote, on this occasion it seems to be a protest non-vote”. 

“The Labour Party won mid-Bedfordshire with [...] less votes than they got in 2019, in itself quite striking," he explained.  

"In Tamworth they got marginally more votes than they got last time, but markedly fewer votes than they got in 2017.” 

Labour came second in Mid-Bedfordshire in 2019 with 14,028 votes, whereas last night they won the seat 13,872. 

The party came second in Tamworth in 2019 with 10,908 votes and increased that to 11,719 with their win yesterday. However, they secured 16,401 votes in the seat six years ago in 2017. 

Hayward believes that the public “has not forgiven the Conservatives for the events of 2020 to 2022 and it comes up persistently on the doorstep," despite efforts by Rishi Sunak to "put a house in order".

There have been numerous scandals involving Conservative MPs in recent years, including partygate and allegations of groping against Chris Pincher, whose resignation in Tamworth triggered the by-election after a Commons suspension of eight weeks was recommended. 

Ahead of the votes, analysts had predicted that both contests could be tight, and now both Mid Bedfordshire and Tamworth have Labour majorities of less than 1,500. 

Conservative Party chairman Greg Hands told Sky News this morning that the party would need to “reflect” on why its supporters did not go to the polls and that the “big problem we have is still Conservative voters staying at home”. He described the results as “clearly disappointing for us and we'll have to reflect on the fact that a large number of Conservative voters stayed at home".

But while turnout was down in both seats, Damian Lyons Lowe, the chief executive and founder at pollster Survation, told PoliticsHome that they have data that suggests as many as 60 per cent of people that voted in Mid-Bedfordshire yesterday and voted in 2019, were those who backed the Conservatives in 2019. 

Using data collected in a poll in September, Lyons Lowe explained that among the people who said they were 10/10 likely to vote in yesterday's poll were 52 per cent of the cohort who had backed Conservative Nadine Dorries in 2019. 

Given the Conservative majority was so large, that made up a larger numerical number than the 58 per cent of Labour 2019 backers in the seat who said they were 10/10 likely to vote. Of the 199 people in September who told them they were 10/10 certain to vote, 119 were people who had backed the Conservatives in 2019. 

Based on those figures, Lyons Lowe said, Survation estimate that 60 per cent of yesterday's voters backed the Conservatives in 2019, and subsequently suggests that the Tory base did turn out to vote. 

Elections expert Professor John Curtice wrote for the BBC that the results “represent one of the worst by-election nights that any government has had to endure” and there are “disturbing echoes for the Conservatives” of by-election outcomes in the mid-1990s before Labour won a landslide at the general election. 

James Crouch, the head of policy and public affairs at polling firm Opinium agreed with Hayward's assessment that Tory voters failed to turn out in both seats. 

“You would have to be a really strong person on the Conservative side to look at these numbers and feel any level of optimism,” he said, in a grave warning to the party ahead of the next general election, which must be called before the end of 2024.

In Mid Bedfordshire the Conservative vote fell by around 25,000 compared to the 2019 election, while Labour secured fewer votes than they did four years ago. In Tamworth, the Tory vote fell by more than 20,000. 

Voting patterns in by-elections can behave differently to general elections, and Crouch said that with by-elections, there “really aren't very many safer seats for the Conservatives to potentially lose”, looking at Tamworth, Mid-Bedfordshire, and the former safe seat of Selby and Ainsty in North Yorkshire, which flipped to Labour in a by-election in July. 

Crouch told PoliticsHome that there is “limited truth” in the idea that it is Conservatives not turning out to vote, rather than a direct shift towards Labour, and thinks there is a possibility the seats could go blue again at a general election, but that should be of little comfort for the party.

“There is an element of there just being a very, very large number of Conservative voters not prepared to leave their homes and put an X next to the Conservative candidate at a by-election," he explained. 

“I think all that really tells us, is that the Tories have upset a large number of people who wouldn't turn up for them at a by-election, and they'll probably get these safe seats back in a general. 

“But saying that you're going to, you know, saying that you'll probably win back Mid Bedfordshire at a general election doesn’t say very much.”

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