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Uxbridge result must be a wake-up call for Labour

(Alamy)

5 min read

Yesterday’s by-election results confirmed two of politics' oldest adages. First, all politics is local. Second, expectations matter.

On any other night a 29 point swing to the Liberal Democrats in Somerton and Frome and 24 point swing to the Labour in Selby would have been seen as the death knell for the Conservatives after 13 years in government. And yet in the third area being contested last night Uxbridge and South Ruislip – a seat that on paper should have been the easiest opposition gain – the Tories drastically outperformed expectations holding the seat and keeping the swing to Labour to under seven points. Looking at Uxbridge, in the absence of the other seats being contested, one would conclude that projections of a Tory defeat are premature and that Labour has failed to seal the deal with the electorate. So which narrative is right?

The Conservative’s almost single issue campaign against ULEZ was a model on how to run elections

There is no doubt the Uxbridge win is very good news for the Conservatives and Rishi Sunak, if for no other reason than the expectations were they would lose all three seats. Topping off what was arguably the Prime Minister's best week since the local elections, with inflation falling faster than expected, mortgage rates peaking, the Illegal Migration Act passing and Labour infighting over the child benefit cap – the Uxbridge victory offers the Conservatives a glimmer of hope for the election ahead. 

The circumstances of this win are also important, there is no doubt that Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan’s ultra-low emissions zone (ULEZ) extension was the decisive factor in denying Keir Starmer a victory there. In our recent focus group in the seat, every single participant condemned the scheme as a painful unnecessary squeeze during a cost of living crisis. Such was the profile of the issue that the Labour candidate’s apparent flip-flop had been noticed raising questions about his principles. While the Conservative’s almost single issue campaign against ULEZ was a model on how to run elections. But the truth is ULEZ, as well as demographic shifts in this part of London, made this contest almost entirely unique – which is why it is worth turning to the other two election results to better understand the national picture.

Somerton and Frome is the least surprising of the results, the Liberal Democrats operate a formidable by-election machine and held the seat until 2015. But after the Brexit referendum, many Tories hoped that the Liberal Democrats pro-EU stance would permanently alienate leave voters in their old South-West strongholds. Last night’s result, and that of Tiverton and Honiton last year, suggest instead that not only have those Brexit identities faded, putting the South-West of England back in play, but also that the public are increasingly savvy at identifying and tactically voting for the party most likely to kick the Tories out. 

But Selby is without doubt the most seismic of last night’s result. Selby was not a marginal seat – there are fewer than 100 Tory seats with bigger majorities than Selby had going into this by-election. The swing to Labour exceeds those seen by Tony Blair’s Labour Party in the run up to the 1997 election and this is the biggest numerical majority that Labour have ever overturned. Speaking to voters in Selby, it was clear that even safe Tory seats aren’t immune from those cost of living headwinds and real frustration with the Tories’ seeming addiction to chaos rather than sorting out the country’s problems.

Where does this leave us? For the Tories, there will undoubtedly be relief that things could have been much worse and Rishi Sunak has both exceeded (low) expectations and avoided the ignominy of becoming the first Prime Minister since Harold Wilson in 1968 to lose 3 by-elections in one night. But absent the local factors in Uxbridge, these results do seem to confirm what the polls are already telling us – the ground is shifting away from the Tories – and Keir Mather’s victory in Selby in particular suggests the playing field for the next election could be much bigger than could have been predicted even just a year ago. 

If there is a path for the Conservatives it now relies on them deploying an ‘Uxbridge strategy’ across the country identifying and driving home those ULEZ-style wedge issues. Expect to see the Tories pointing to cost of living increases being imposed in Labour run areas from London to Wales as evidence of what a Labour government would do to the country as a whole. Rishi Sunak looks set to use the summer recess to select a new team best capable of doing that.

This strategy combined with hopes of an economic recovery may just be enough to persuade a volatile electorate – it is worth remembering just over two years ago the Conservatives hit 55 per cent in the polls, now they are on half that. Getting back to a majority seems unlikely, but it seems at least possible if a lot of things go right, and the Tories can now hope that an Uxbridge strategy can at least hold Labour to a hung Parliament. 

For Labour, the challenge is different. Selby shows that Keir Starmer’s party has the potential to win big. But in every one of our focus groups across the three by-election seats, voters told us that they still had not heard what Labour would do differently. Uxbridge should be a wake-up call that winning by default may no longer cut it in the face of a disciplined Conservative campaign.

To be assured of winning big, Starmer needs to properly set out his stall. That doesn’t mean embracing radicalism, the reaction to ULEZ shows that would be a mistake – but instead to set out in tangible terms precisely how that now very likely Labour government would make people’s lives better across the country. 

 

Luke Tryl, UK Director of More in Common 

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