Election Countdown

The winners and losers of yesterday’s byelections

Labour scored excellent victories in Wellingborough and Kingswood. But the Lib Dems should take heart from the result

February 16, 2024
Labour Party candidate Gen Kitchen celebrates with Labour MP for Chesterfield Toby Perkins after winning Wellingborough byelection. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Labour Party candidate Gen Kitchen celebrates with Labour MP for Chesterfield Toby Perkins after winning Wellingborough byelection. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Why should the star system be restricted to rating films, books and TV shows? Let’s apply it to last night’s byelection results. 

Labour * * * * 

Labour has now gained seven seats from the Conservatives in the past two years—a new record, overtaking the five it won in the 1959-64 parliament. It won Wellingborough with a swing of 28.5 per cent—the second biggest in its history—and Kingswood with a swing of 16.4 per cent.

So why four stars and not five? Labour’s two victories were far more the product of Conservative weakness than Labour strength. This is especially true of Kingswood. On a low turnout, Labour’s vote fell from 16,492 four years ago to 11,176 yesterday—a fall of 32 per cent. (In Wellingborough it did far better, with its vote edging up from 13,737 to 13,844.)

Now, Labour’s vote falls routinely in byelections in safe Labour seats, and those where its supporters switch tactically to the Liberal Democrats in order to defeat the Tories. But only once in Labour’s history has it gained a seat from the Tories despite shedding as many votes as in Kingswood. In 1982 Labour gained Birmingham Northfield, despite losing 37 per cent of its 1979 vote. But that was when the recently formed Social Democratic Party was riding high: it took slightly more votes from the Tories than Labour, just enough for Labour to edge ahead.

Labour says the Kingswood contest was unexpected, and the party had too little time to plan for it. It’s a fair point. But the turnout, though low, was no worse than in two other seats that Labour gained last year, where the numbers of people voting Labour held up far better. The party certainly turned in a five-star performance in Wellingborough, but its Kingswood vote takes a little of the shine off last night’s results.

Conservatives * 

Here’s something for those who enjoyed the “just a bit of fun” moments that Peter Snow used to provide on BBC byelection programmes. The movements of votes in Wellingborough would, if repeated nationally, leave the Tories with just eight MPs in parliament.

More seriously, the fall in the numbers of people voting Conservative was, once again, catastrophic. Earlier this week I observed that the party has done far worse in byelections during Rishi Sunak’s leadership than it did under John Major in the run-up to the 1992 election. Then, the numbers voting Conservative in byelections the party was defending fell by 32 per cent. In the last four byelections before yesterday, the fall was far worse: 67 per cent. Last night’s figures were, if anything, slightly more catastrophic: 69 per cent in Kingswood (from almost 28,000 to less than 9,000) and fully 77 per cent in Wellingborough (from more than 32,000 to less than 8,000). 

Oddly, the Wellingborough result comes with a silver lining for Sunak, and justified one star rather than none. The Tory candidate, Helen Harrison, is the partner of Peter Bone, the former MP. The prime minister was unhappy that the local party chose her. A significantly higher vote might have fuelled the argument that Tories who keep their distance from Sunak can do better than those loyal to him. He will be relieved that such a bittersweet outcome was avoided.

Liberal Democrats * * *

Three stars might seem a bizarre verdict for a party that suffered two more lost deposits, and saw the low number of votes it received in the past fall even further. The reason why the Lib Dems can regard the result with equanimity is that it fits a remarkable pattern that puts them on course to make significant gains at the next general election.

Historically, one of the great problems for the Liberals and, now, Lib Dems was that they piled up decent votes almost everywhere, but seldom enough to convert votes into victories. They would have done far better to win far fewer votes in seats they couldn’t win, and more where they had a chance of winning.

This is precisely what has happened in the past four years. In the 20 byelections of this parliament in which the Lib Dems fielded candidates, the party has, with two exceptions, either won (four seats) or lost its deposit (14 times). In the City of Chester, its 8 per cent saved its deposit, but was still pretty low. Only in Mid Bedfordshire, where it thought (wrongly) that it was best placed to defeat the Tories, did it pile up a significant number of votes—more than 9,000—without winning the seat.

This means that its nationwide vote share, generally around 10 per cent these days, could be almost irrelevant at the general election. If it can target winnable seats as effectively as it has done in byelections, then a standstill, or even slight decline, in its nationwide vote could mask the capture of 20 or 30, and conceivably more, Conservative seats. Finally, Britain’s political centre might have found a solution to the wasted vote problem that has blighted its prospects for a century.

Reform UK * *

Reform achieved its two best votes in the current parliament: 10 per cent in Kingswood, 13 per cent in Wellingborough. These figures mirror a rise in its poll rating. But it is still doing far worse than Ukip a decade ago. During the Cameron years, Ukip routinely won between 20 per cent and 30 per cent of the vote in byelections. And although Ukip went on to win almost four million votes in the 2015 general election, its vote share was down to 13 per cent. Its only victory was in Clacton, where Douglas Carswell held the seat he had originally won in 2005 as a Conservative. Reform will have to pick up significantly more support if it is to have any MPs in the next parliament; history suggests that its support is more likely to shrivel than grow as the general election approaches. 

Perhaps its fortunes will pick up if Nigel Farage returns to the fray.