Keir Starmer has neutralised his party’s fear factor

Two stunning byelection victories last night in Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire show that Labour has managed to reassure nervous swing voters—and without alienating the faithful

October 20, 2023
New Tamworth MP Sarah Edwards celebrating with Keir Starmer. Image: PA Images / Alamy
New Tamworth MP Sarah Edwards celebrating with Keir Starmer. Image: PA Images / Alamy

Figures buried in a recent YouGov survey help to explain last night’s byelection results, and why Labour’s recent victories have been both spectacular and routine.

After last week’s Labour conference, voters were asked: “If Keir Starmer and the Labour Party were to form the next Government, how much of a change, if any, do you think they would represent?”

Respondents who voted Labour in 2019 replied: 70 per cent “small” or “big” change; just 18 per cent “not much” or “no” change. In contrast, Tory voters who gave Boris Johnson his big majority four years ago replied: change 35 per cent, not much or no change 51 per cent.

These figures show that Starmer has pulled off a remarkable feat. He has persuaded the great majority of Labour voters that he will make the kind of difference that they are anxious for after 13 years of Tory rule: a fairer Britain, better health service, faster economic growth.

At the same time, he has persuaded seven million Tories (out of the 14m last time) that they have nothing to fear from a Labour government: no public spending splurge, no higher taxes for the better off, no reversal of Brexit. Radicalism for the loyalists, reassurance for the nervous. Bingo!

Four decades of Labour defeats have shown the importance of fighting the fear factor: Jeremy Corbyn in 2019, the allegation that Ed Miliband would be a puppet in Alex Salmond’s pocket in 2015, Labour’s “double tax whammy” in 1992, a revival of the Winter of Discontent in 1987, and—younger readers, prepare for a shock—Margaret Thatcher’s warning in 1983 that a Labour government would do untold economic damage by withdrawing Britain from the common market. 

An exception was the “demon eyes” Tory poster in 1997, which depicted Tony Blair as the devil. It backfired because Blair had detoxified his party. The fear factor didn’t work. Labour is back in that happy position today.

This is one reason why the Liberal Democrats are ludicrous to claim that, by winning over former Tory voters in the villages of Mid Bedfordshire, they delivered victory to Labour. The point is not what these voters did last time, but what they would have done yesterday had the Lib Dems not fought such an ambitious campaign. Other byelections (such as in Selby three months ago) and the extinction of the fear factor suggest that many of them would have voted Labour. The Lib Dems simply reduced the size of Alistair Strathern’s majority.

Some commentators have suggested that the aggression between Labour and the Lib Dems bodes ill for the coming general election and the prospects of tactical voting to unseat as many Conservatives as possible. I have bad news for the Tories and good news for their opponents: the commentators are wrong.

There are two reasons for this. First, tactical voting is something voters decide for themselves. Where it is obvious which candidate has the best chance of defeating the Tories, they will win many votes from the party trailing a distant third.

Second, there are only four Conservative constituencies that will be genuinely three-way contests next time on both the Labour and Lib Dem target lists. Three of these are in London, where the Lib Dems fielded high-profile candidates last time, two of them former Labour MPs (Chukka Umunna in the Cities of London and Westminster, Luciana Berger in Finchley and Golders Green).  My guess is that the Lib Dems will end up third in all three next time, even if they insist on fighting them hard. The fourth seat is a completely new constituency in Berkshire, where the real starting point for all three parties, and hence the prospects for tactical voting, are close to guesswork. Everywhere else, that tactical choice will be clear-cut. 

The point about Mid Beds is that it is one of a range of normally very safe Conservative seats where both Labour and the Lib Dems start miles behind. Only in byelections would either opposition party devote campaigning resources that would be far better applied to more winnable seats. Indeed, I wonder how much help the local Labour parties will get to hold Tamworth and Mid Beds at the general election. I would advise anyone who likes a flutter at election time not to bet any money on Labour retaining either seat.

One reason for this—and the only cautionary note following last night’s huge swings—is the continuing pattern of low byelection turnouts. Many more Tories from 2019 stayed at home than switched to Labour. Labour’s two majorities, 1,192 in Mid Beds and 1,316 in Tamworth, are far too small to stand in the way of the near-certain revival of the local Tory vote in a general election when turnouts return to normal levels.

The deeper question posed by last night’s remarkable results is whether Labour can sustain its strategy of sending a message of change to one block of voters and continuity to another. Blair did precisely this in 1997 (“24 hours to save the NHS” and “no income tax rises”). Starmer is on his way to repeating Blair’s achievement. The Conservatives failed to counter it then. Can they do any better this time?