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UK By-Election Winners and ULEZers

In case we haven’t had enough excitement in British politics over the last year or so, the 20th of July was a triple by-election day in the UK, triggered most notably by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s resignation of his seat in early June. While many debate how much of the national picture you can glean from by-elections, on this occasion it may reflect the national mood well - the Conservatives are in peril but Labour still have a big job to do in the run up to the 2024 election. This certainly was demonstrated in the results in the Uxbridge and Ruislip, Somerton and Frome and Ainsty and Selby constituencies. 

Expected losses from the Tories

The Conservative defeats in Selby and Ainsty, and in Somerset and Frome, are an indicator that what we’ve been seeing in conventional polls for some time are accurate: Keir Starmer is on track to deliver a Labour victory, whether in a majority, minority or coalition form, in the next general election. Not only have the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties increased their seat representation in the House of Commons, they’ve also managed to overturn considerable Tory majorities in these two constituencies, with evidence of Lib-Lab tactical voting.

In Somerton and Frome, the Lib Dem tradition of being excellent at by-elections continued. Somerton and Frome had a Tory majority of over 19,000 prior to the election. On the night, the

LibDem candidate Sarah Dyke won with 21,187 ballots cast and a majority of 11,000 votes, a swing of 29%. The defeat of the Tories in Somerton and Frome poses a real problem for Rishi Sunak’s party - the Lib Dems are continuing their recovery in the traditional Liberal heartlands of the South West after the disaster of 2015.

Labour’s victory in Selby and Ainsty is arguably the most significant result of the by-election. This is a strong sign for a future Labour government, as they achieved a swing of 17.9% to win the seat, which is the second largest swing from Tory to Labour in parliamentary history. The MP elected, Keir Mather, is now the youngest MP in the House. At just 25 years old, he is the only elected MP to be born after former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair came into power. 

Generally, the consensus in these two constituencies demonstrates the issues that Rishi Sunak and the Conservative party faces at the next election. As has historically been shown, by-elections serve as litmus tests for political parties - revealing the electorate's current sentiments towards the ruling government and the opposition. However, Labour and the Lib Dems shouldn’t count their chickens before they hatch - as the result in Uxbridge and Ruislip has shown.

ULEZ and the impact of Net Zero policies on elections

One surprise to emerge from the by-elections is the Conservative victory in the seat of Uxbridge and Ruislip. Despite Labour being the favourite to win the election, with Tory insiders even suggesting defeat was inevitable, the Conservative candidate Steve Tuckwell managed to maintain a Tory seat, by a very slim majority of 495 votes. 

This result has been blamed on Labour’s own Mayor of London Sadiq Khan’s proposed expansion of the Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) to outer London. While Labour candidate Danny Beales made efforts to distance himself from the scheme, it was not enough to convince voters to side with Labour over the Tories. With this focus on ULEZ, the historic understanding that by-elections can be seen as mini-referendums on various issues was confirmed. 

The strong opposition to ULEZ expansion in the region also demonstrates that while policies that help tackle the climate crisis need to be on the agenda, the financial burden cannot fall on voters in the midst of a cost of living crisis. As we move into the manifesto development process, all parties now have to consider how Net Zero policies impact voters and ensure that incentives and compensation schemes are up to scratch, in order for voters to get behind them. 

Key considerations and reactions

So what do these results mean for the next few months and the upcoming 2024 general election? In short, Labour has more to do to get election ready. Despite the general public’s disillusionment with the Tories, Labour cannot expect wins in all constituencies where this is the case. The campaign in Uxbridge exposed the fact that Labour is vulnerable to well-targeted campaigns on hyper local issues that tangibly affect voters. On the other hand, while the Tories can celebrate their victory in Uxbridge, their next challenge comes in the form of the Lib Dems across the ‘Blue Wall’ seats in the South East and South West. 

In terms of reactions, the Prime Minister immediately came out and said “we’ve got to double down, stick to our plan and deliver for people. That’s what I heard when I was out on the doorsteps and that’s what we’re going to do.” While Leader of the Opposition Keir Starmer focused on the Selby result saying only Labour “can give the country its hope, its optimism and its future back" after 13 years of “Tory Chaos”. Lib Dem leader Davey joked the Party “needed a bigger tractor” as their prospects in the South West look promising once again. The results are therefore likely to see the parties stick to their existing strategies.

With each party able to claim some sort of success on the night, it may not be immediately obvious who the clear winner was, despite the Tories losing two key seats. What is for sure is that this by-election has given each party a lot to think about as they develop their strategies ahead of the 2024 election, with key reshuffles ahead of the autumn party conference season now happening almost for certain as we move into the Autumn party conferences.

To find out about how our Government Relations and Public Affairs expertise shape change and create policy impact, head here.

For a full summary of the by-elections, see this report:

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