“Mr Johnson’s problem is not simply that his party has lost support. Rather, many opposition voters are now seemingly willing to vote for whichever candidate seems best able to defeat the Conservatives locally. And if that continues, winning the next general election could begin to look a lot more difficult.“
John Curtice www.thetimes.co.uk
The results in Wakefield and Tiverton & Honiton do not make easy reading for the Conservatives.
The 12.7 per cent swing from Conservative to Labour in Wakefield would, if replicated everywhere, be enough to deliver a Labour overall majority.
Meanwhile, as many as 333 Tory MPs could lose their seat if they suffered the 29.9 per cent swing from Conservative to Liberal Democrat registered in Tiverton & Honiton.
However, by-elections provide an exaggerated picture of a government’s mid-term electoral problems. The swings registered in the two by-elections would not necessarily have occurred in a general election on Thursday. To assess the significance of the results we should compare them with past by-elections rather than extrapolate them to a general election.
By that standard, Labour’s performance in Wakefield was creditable. The swing to the party from the Conservatives is the highest recorded so far in any by-election in this parliament, as is the 8.1 point increase in Labour’s own share of the vote.
However, the swing is no higher than that recorded when Labour last made a by-election gain in Corby ten years ago, and is somewhat less than the 13.6 per cent swing recorded the same year when the party successfully defended Middlesborough.
Indeed, there were no less than ten by-elections in the 2010-15 parliament when Labour’s share of the vote rose by more than it did on Thursday – yet the party still lost in 2015.
In short, Wakefield provides less than decisive evidence of a new enthusiasm for Labour. Indeed, it is striking that the 17.3 point fall in the Conservative tally was more than twice the 8.1 point increase in Labour support.
Much of the damage to the Conservatives appears to have been done by a former local Tory councillor who stood as an Independent after calling for Boris Johnson to resign and won as much as 7.6 per cent of the vote.
The Liberal Democrats certainly have reason to be cock-a-hoop about their success in Tiverton & Honiton. The 38.1 point increase in their share of the vote was slightly above the equivalent figure of 37.2 points in North Shropshire in December. Indeed, it represented the third biggest ever rise in the party’s support in a previously Conservative held seat.
Yet the 21.7 point fall in Conservative support in Tiverton was only a little higher than in Wakefield and was well down on the 31.1 point fall the party suffered in North Shropshire. Indeed, there are no less than 19 previous post-war by-elections where the Conservative fell more heavily in a seat the party was attempting to defend.
Bad though Wakefield and Tiverton & Honiton might be for the Conservatives, the results suggest that at least the party’s electoral plight may be no worse now than it was a few months ago at the height of the ‘partygate’ row.
However, there is a very significant fly in the Conservative ointment.
The 14.4 point Liberal Democrat majority over the Conservatives was a little less than the sharp 15.8 point drop in Labour’s share of the vote. While not all those who defected from Labour will have switched to the Liberal Democrats, it is highly likely that many did so, and their decision may have been crucial to the Liberal Democrat victory. Meanwhile, more than half the already diminutive Liberal Democrat vote in Wakefield fell away too.
Mr Johnson’s problem is not simply that his party has lost support. Rather, many opposition voters are now seemingly willing to vote for whichever candidate seems best able to defeat the Conservatives locally. And if that continues, winning the next general election could begin to look a lot more difficult.
Sir John Curtice is a professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde and senior research fellow, NatCen Social Research and The UK in a Changing Europe.