Five key takeaways from 2023 by-elections

‘Sweary Labour folk’ blame Ulez for Uxbridge shock but Tories are still ‘heading for drubbing’

New Labour MP Keir Mather
At 25, Labour’s Keir Mather has become the youngest MP with his victory in Selby
(Image credit: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

The Tories, Labour and the Liberal Democrats are all claiming positives after each party achieved a dramatic victory in yesterday’s by-elections.

Labour overturned a 20,137 Conservative majority in Selby and Ainsty and the Liberal Democrats took the seat of Somerton and Frome, winning by 11,008 votes.

But despite those thumping Conservative defeats, “the blow is softened a bit by the surprise result in former PM Boris Johnson’s old seat”, said the BBC. The Tories just held on to Uxbridge and South Ruislip with a significantly reduced majority of 495 votes.

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Both Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer will “try to convince their parties that the results give cause for optimism”, said Sky News. But what are the main takeaways?

Tories still in trouble…

The Uxbridge result may “raise questions about the potential fragility of support for Labour more broadly”, polling expert John Curtice told the BBC, but Labour’s win in Selby shows “the tide is still a long way out for the Conservatives” and “they still have an awful long way to go” if they want to win the next general election.

Pollster James Johnson agreed, telling Politico’s London Playbook that “Selby is arguably the most informative result of the night when we think about how things might develop in a general election”.

Last night’s results confirm that the Tories are “heading for an almighty drubbing”, wrote Stephen Daisley for The Spectator. “It’s now a matter of shoring up as many seats as they can,” he added. “Going by their performance last night, they have a job of work on their hands.”

… but Sunak has ‘slim hope’

While “it would be wrong to say that it was anything but a terrible night” for Sunak, the PM will believe he still has a “path to victory” – or “at least to avoid humiliation”, said ITV’s Robert Peston.

The Uxbridge result “reinforces his conviction that if only he could persuade voters they would be financially better off sticking with the Tories, the gap with Labour would narrow”, added Peston.

Writing for The Spectator, the former UKIP MEP Patrick O’Flynn said that Sunak “may have spotted a shaft of sunlight breaking through the gun-metal grey that was previously threatening to engulf him”.

Ulez is a threat to Labour

Labour’s failure to win in Uxbridge is being blamed on the expansion of the ultra-low emissions zone (Ulez) in the capital under Labour mayor Sadiq Khan. The mayor “has lost Labour this election”, said the victorious Tory, Steve Tuckwell.

“Gleeful Tories” and “sweary Labour folk” are “dumping the blame” on the expansion of the zone and on Khan, agreed London Playbook. A Labour aide told the newsletter that “arrogant f*cking Sadiq cared more about his book launch than the party”, while an official Labour statement admitted that Ulez had been a “concern” for voters.

The expansion of Ulez, due to come into operation at the end of August, has “gone down badly with voters”, said Sky News, with the public regarding it as a “Labour-imposed tax on those suffering most from the cost of living crisis”. The issue is now expected to dominate at the London mayoral election next May.

Cost of living dominates

Concern about the economy loomed large in voters’ decisions, wrote Paul Waugh, chief political commentator for the i news site, suggesting it will be the key background at the next general election.

The Uxbridge result is “actually united with the Somerton and Selby results by a common factor”, wrote Waugh – “it’s the cost of living, stupid”. While in west London, the economic climate encouraged people to turn against the prospect of Ulez charges, in the West Country and Yorkshire seats, the “feedback on the doorsteps” was that “mortgage misery” and “soaring food and energy bills” were the dominant concerns.

Lib Dems are ‘cock-a-hoop’

Sarah Dyke, the victorious Lib Dem in Somerset, said the victory “shows once and for all the Liberal Democrats are back in the West Country”. Lib Dem “spinners” are “boasting” there are 15 seats in the region with smaller Tory majorities over Lib Dems than was the case in Somerton and Frome, said London Playbook.

The Lib Dems are “definitively and importantly back as the important third force in English politics”, agreed Peston, and are “rampant in the West Country again”.

However, the Green Party, which came third in all three by-elections, laid a claim to be the new third force in British politics. “We were the only party to increase our vote share in all three contests”, Adrian Ramsay, the Green co-leader, told The Guardian.

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