Three By-Elections Down – Who Won, and Why?

Airdrie and Shotts

The Airdrie and Shotts constituency.

Airdrie and Shotts will likely be the shortest section because very little actually happened. It’s a seat that was SNP since 2015 and has been in SNP hands since the Scottish elections in 2011. Though in 2017 the seat was tight with Labour within a percent of the SNP, there was an expectation that the SNP would easily hold this seat, especially considering the fact that the seat was turned into a-by election after the MP stood, and won, in the Scottish election with over 50% of the vote. Therefore, coverage of the by-election was minimal as everyone almost saw it as a dead rubber.

Unsurprisingly, the SNP did hold the seat, with an increased vote share of 1.4%. The majority did decrease, however, as a result of likely unionist tactical voting that put Labour up 6.5% from the 2019 election. Going forward, this means that Labour need a drastic campaign, and perhaps to work with the Conservatives if they want to try to take this seat. This changes nothing for the SNPl however, because they have a substantial majority in Scotland’s Parliamentary seats and a drastic majority in the FPTP elected seats in the Scottish Parliament. Labour may look at this as a win for them, but in reality, generally this seat means very little – it was more about the unionists against the separatists.

Chesham and Amersham

The Chesham and Amersham constituency in Buckinghamshire.

Chesham and Amersham, in many people’s minds, should have been like Airdrie and Shotts. It’s a seat where many predicted a strong Conservative majority after the seat had been strongly favourable towards the Tories for a very long time. Therefore, many felt confident in predicting a Conservative win, though the majority to be decreased due to the popularity of the previous MP likely inflating the Conservative support over the years, but even still many saw it a shoo-in. However, that is not how it actually happened. 

The Liberal Democrats stormed the Conservatives with a win so massive, that it became their 3rd-safest seat. They went up 30%, which likely came as a result of disgruntled Conservatives and Labour supporters who tactically voted to try to oust the Tories. The Liberal Democrats campaigned on local issues, talking about High Speed Railway 2 (HS2) and local infrastructure, which was drastically different from their campaigning over the last few years which was mainly due to Brexit. HS2 is a deeply unpopular policy, especially in this area, but more than that, nationally speaking, many see it as a waste of money as it has drastically exceeded the original price tag that Cameron and Osbourne originally gave it when it was put in the budget. Therefore, using this local disdain of the policy and other infrastructure local based issues, the Liberal Democrats were able to swing voters from the disenfranchised Conservatives, and also take many Labour voters who simply wanted the Conservatives out.

The impact this has had is that people are starting to question if the Liberal Democrats could take what people are calling the “Blue Wall”. Though I have many problems with that term, as I also have with “Red Wall”, it should create some concern for the Tories. There are two factors though that will ultimately decide the outcomes. Firstly, can the Liberal Democrats have as much success in a general election when their resources are more spread out, and when elections are more nationally based rather than locally based? This will have a massive impact because the Liberal Democrats, and generally smaller parties, have issues when they do well in by-elections but fail to make the most of that when it comes to General Elections. The other factor is CCHQ Itself. Many credit the Central Conservative Headquarters with the reason the Conservative campaign was so lackluster in this by-election.

Batley and Spen

The Batley and Span constituency in West Yorkshire.

This is the by-election most people were looking forward to, especially after the Conservative trounced Labour in Hartlepool, there was an expectation that they would do something similar here. This was backed up by George Galloway deciding to stand, especially as it emerged it was likely he would take much of the Muslim vote due to LGBT issues and his support for Palestine. However, the Labour candidate Kim Leadbeater is someone who would be somewhat known to the community, as she is the sister of deceased MP Jo Cox, who was the MP from 2015-2016 before she was murdered during the EU Referendum campaign. Moreover, Leadbeater was someone who outside of that was well known in the constituency, and was the only local candidate. 

The result of this by-election was a surprise. Throughout the night, it was predicted that the Tories would take it, though I believed it to be closer than many thought. Labour were, however, able to hold it by 326 votes, or a margin of 0.9% ahead of the Conservatives. Labour went down 7.1%, the Conservatives went down 1.6%, with George Galloway coming 3rd with 21.9%, with all other parties not being able to get the deposit back. 

This result brings about a few questions. First off all, why did the Conservative party go down in the vote share? Well, there are likely to be three main factors. Generally speaking, their candidate was silent on nearly everything and generally avoided interviews or press coverage. The second factor, once again, is CCHQ. The final factor is likely Matt Hancock, as the Tories were polling nationally lower after the Matt Hancock scandal came out; polling also showed them likely to win the seat previously to this scandal. I tweeted before the by-election that the Conservatives were doing everything they could to lose the seat following this footage, and that’s what happened.

The issue appears to be that the Conservative Party, in my view, has probably gotten apathetic as they believe to have a lack of opposition. Following this scandal, they were really slow to try and regain momentum and really try to get anything added in the seat. There was barely any high-profile campaigning compared to Labour, who seemingly had a new MP or Lord there every day. This is something that needs to be changed if the Conservatives are too make inroads on Labour going into a General Election.

The second question is, does this mean Starmer’s leadership is safe? Well in short, it’s not very clear. Though Labour held on, it was extremely marginal, and many who went on the streets have credited the candidate to have been the difference maker rather than the leadership. Some have speculated that though Labour won, it was still a loss for Starmer considering Galloway, who was very vocally anti-Starmer, won over 20% of the vote. Moreover, the fact that the Labour lost 7% of the vote in a seat that five years ago was deemed safe Labour shows a continuation of the losses in West Yorkshire. To make things worse, many have projected that the placement for the constituency in the proposed boundaries will make the seat more Conservative, meaning that it might be hard to hold on especially considering the changes if the proposed boundaries come to reality.

Interestingly, following the by-election Starmer stated that “Labour is coming home”. Many may believe that’s due to the Euros being on and the cultural relevance of the time, but it was actually something uttered by Blair. This suggests that that is the image Keir has been trying to reimpose, but to generally worse effect. Labour is still trying to campaign on similar things, as well as using similar rhetoric shows that they are perhaps living in the past and can’t read the political climate. Zarah Sultana once again started stating the Tories are going to privatise the NHS, despite the fact the Conservatives have been in power, and in charge of the NHS, for longer than Labour. It shows that there are worrying times ahead unless Labour are able to come into the new decade with fresh ideas and fresh campaign strategy. It is also telling they are bringing this kind of messaging when they only just held on to a seat, with their majority slashed. This all suggests that both the Conservatives and Labour are not in as good of a place as they will try to make out it to be. 

Final Thoughts

Both parties seem to be in trouble in their organization and leadership, and massive changes need to happen. The advantage for the Conservatives is that as they are the Government, if they are doing well and end up having a good recovery, their campaign won’t be hit too hard. And in my view, its still worrying that after a year of Keir Starmer as leader of Labour, and after the supposed lessons being learnt from Hartlepool, there is still an unclear vision from him on what he wants for the country, other than the usual Labour buzzwords. With a possible by-election coming up in Delyn and Wakerfield coming as a result of possible legal action or constituents taking advantage of the 2015 Recall of MPs Act, it will be interesting to see if the supposed lessons deemed to have been learnt will actually result in any substance. 

Aaron is an objective journalist who does analysis on the current climate of politics and political party successes and looks back at recent political history to see where we are headed for. You can find him on Twitter @aaron_gsmith.

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