The writer is a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London and co-author of ‘The British General Election of 2019’
Anyone who has ever come across a level crossing in France will have seen a sign that says A train peut cacher an autre — one train can hide another. That warning also applies to the Conservative Party’s two partial defeats this week. So spectacular was the victory of the Liberal Democrats at Tiverton and Honiton that it risks obscuring the meaning of Labour’s so-called regular victory at Wakefield. However, to the extent that by-elections can be harbingers of an upcoming general election, the latest one matters as much, if not more, than the first.
That is not, of course, to deny the importance of what happened in Devon on Thursday, and not just because it joins the British third-placed list of iconic victories, dating back to Orpington in 1962. Following Chesham and Amersham and North Shropshire complete a hat-trick of big wins in traditionally blue seats for the Ed Davey match over the past year.
True, if the experience of the 1980s and 1990s is any guide, it is possible that all three seats will return to the Tories in the next general election, especially if the magnitude of their defeat in Devon convinces Boris Johnson’s MPs to drop out. to the. Eastbourne’s loss to the Liberal Democrats in 1990 convinced her predecessors to get rid of Margaret Thatcher and her successor John Major remained in 1992.
But that should be no comfort to conservatives. there is somewhere between 20 and 30 places (recent boundary changes make it hard to be more precise) that the liberal Democrats could take from them in a 10-point swing in a general election. And the swing at Tiverton and Honiton was a really scary 30 points.
Furthermore, what was particularly encouraging to the opposition about the result there, and certainly to the Lib Dems, was the apparent willingness of Labor voters to vote tactically, setting aside any lingering resentment over the party’s coalition with the Conservatives in 2010. Yes, Richard Foord is the constituency’s new MP mainly because the Tory vote fell 22 points while the Lib Dem vote rose 38. But the fact that Labor’s turnout collapsed from 19.5 percent to only 3.7 percent was also very helpful.
That collapse matters because there was 17 seats where the Lib Dems came second to the Tories in 2019 and where the number of votes won by Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens together exceeded not only the Tory majority but also the combined total of the Tories and the Party Brexit. If, in the next general election, the Lib Dems can squeeze the Labor (and Green) vote in the way they have in this recent by-election, those seats are up for grabs.
Sadly, for Keir Starmer’s party, there are actually relatively few seats where they finished a decent second last time and where Liberal Democrat voters returning the favor and tactically voting Labor are likely to make a big difference.
Obviously, if the Liberal Democrats were to win a good number of Conservative seats in the next general election, it would not hurt Starmer’s chances of becoming Prime Minister, albeit, perhaps, as leader of the largest party rather than one with an overall majority. But his main task is to persuade people who voted Conservative in 2019 to switch directly (and, in many cases, back) to Labour.
And that’s why we shouldn’t ignore Wakefield.
Admittedly, the result was hardly a resounding endorsement from Starmer and the Labor Party, relying more, perhaps, on the Conservative vote falling by 17 points than Labor rising by 9. Labor might also be a little worried about that some former Conservative voters may have turned to minor parties rather than go over to them.
But a 13-point swing in a seat called the Red Wall is yet to be sniffed at. For conservatives, the Lib Dems are clearly a concern. But, even after Thursday, they just aren’t his main competitor. Such is Labour, and a shift in scale from that achieved by Labor at Wakefield would be more than enough to drive the Tories out of office at the next election.