Conservative apathy won’t be enough for Labour to win the next general election - Starmer needs a clear vision
History tells us that losing two by-elections on the same day is no sure sign of a government on course to lose a general election
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Once again, the Conservative Party has woken up to a devastating set of by-election results, this time losing control of a traditionally safe seat in the South West of England and one of their flagship red-wall 2019 pickups.
Boris Johnson, currently out of the country and most likely in no great rush to return, has also lost a key ally in Conservative Party Chair Oliver Dowden, one of the first senior backers of Mr Johnson’s leadership bid in 2019.
A familiar tale
For the Tories, this is the cost of endless scandal, failure to deliver on key agenda policies and a response to the cost of living crisis which, while sizable, came too late and as an all too apparent attempt to buy-off the electorate following the release of the damning Sue Gray report.
But the Tory party has been here before and survived.
In November 1991, under John Major, the Conservatives suffered two by-election defeats on the same day, losing Kincardine and Deeside to the Liberal Democrats and Langbaurgh to Labour.
But, despite the prevailing Westminster logic at the time, Mr Major pulled together a functioning majority in the general election which took place just a few months later in April 1992.
The Labour leader at the time was Neil Kinnock, who billed himself as a reformer of the party determined to convince the electorate it had moved on from the direction set by his divisive left-wing predecessor, Michael Foot, but was often seen as wooden, lacking clarity and without a clear message.
Worryingly familiar, perhaps, for Labour.
Will Labour win the next general election?
Still, the party has plenty of reasons to celebrate the Wakefield win.
Having held the seat for the best part of a century before losing it in 2019, Labour won it back on a swing which, if replicated nationally, would grant them a workable majority.
The Liberal Democrats’ win in Tiverton and Honiton is also an encouraging sign for Labour, evidencing that electoral pacts can be mutually beneficial for the main two opposition parties.
But the Wakefield result suggests Labour won not because they were able to attract significant numbers of voters back to their banner, but because the Conservative vote collapsed.
A 12-year incumbent governing party should probably expect to lose most by-elections, particularly in semi-marginals seats which have come about following high-profile resignations and in the midst of a major cost of living crisis.
Labour must not take this as a sign that they are on course currently to win big at the next election.
A by-election is one thing, but in a general election, when the stakes are higher and the Tory campaign machine has lurched fully into life, will these same kind of voters stay home?
Though it has always been a fairly low bar, now practically trailing along the floor, Tory MPs will cling to the knowledge that Mr Johnson is better at campaigning than he is at governing.
Contrast this with Keir Starmer, whom it is hard to imagine setting the world alight with an insurgent campaign a la Corbyn in 2017 or even Clegg in 2015.
And while electoral pacts can be used to good effect in individual contests, they could well prove to be a motivating factor for would-be Conservatives in a general election, as Tory strategists reheat a new-and-improved ‘coalition of chaos’ attack line.
These results are encouraging for Labour, but the concern among the Party’s activists and MPs should be that they do not breed complacency.
To win, and to win by enough, Mr Starmer must give people a reason to vote Labour, rather than trusting that people have seen enough reasons not to vote Conservative.