Dem 51
image description
GOP 49
image description

U.K. Update: One and One and One Is Three

When John Lennon wrote that lyric 55 years ago, it is not likely he intended to predict the results of the special by-elections on July 20, 2023, but... you never know. In any event, Britons in three parliamentary constituencies headed to the polls yesterday to fill seats left vacant by resignations and chose MPs from three different parties.

We had a preview of these elections on Wednesday, and regular British correspondent S.T. in Worcestershire, England, UK was kind enough to send in some remarks despite the short turnaround time:

As Jane Austen never quite got round to writing, "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a voter in a U.K. by-election will give the governing party a good kicking". Actually that's not entirely true. Occasionally—usually about every 30 years and in exceptional circumstances—a U.K. governing party does achieve a by-election gain; the last time was in Hartlepool in May 2021. And yesterday it appears the Conservative government avoided total humiliation by the margin of 495 votes, courtesy of the good people of Uxbridge, in three by-elections where the bigger you were, the harder you fell.

The actual results were:

Turnout in all three seats (as is traditional in by-elections) fell sharply compared to the 2019 General Election—by over 31% in Somerton and Frome. Clearly a lot of previous Conservative voters just did not vote at all.

So where does this leave the main U.K. parties? The Liberal Democrats have yet again pulled off a spectacular by-election gain, their fourth this parliament. They must now be giving serious thought to diverting resources to the southwest of England, a previous area of strength where they were wiped out in 2015. Labour will be delighted by their result in Selby, clearly their best since the mid 1990's, prior to their landslide general election result in 1997. They will be greatly disappointed by the Uxbridge result, underperforming both the national and London opinion polls. And Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will be breathing a sigh of relief at having dodged the bullet of three losses in one night.

What saved the Conservatives in Uxbridge? Possibly three factors. Their candidate was an established local councillor who was able to portray his Labour opponent—not altogether accurately—as an outsider. As G.S. commented on Wednesday, the extension of the ULEZ charge on the most polluting motor vehicles to Outer London became a major issue during the campaign (though in truth very few cars are likely to have been caught by the charge). And lastly, Uxbridge does seem to be a seat where Labour underperforms historically. Labour must be ruing the 893 votes secured by the Greens and the 2,071 by other parties (for the record, Count Binface increased his vote from 69 to 190 votes).

The Conservative party spokesmen (it's usually men!) and their supporters in the U.K. press will doubtless be concentrating their coverage on the successful defense rather than the two losses. It will be interesting to see if the fractious members of Sunak's party are equally willing to overlook their thumping outside of London. Particularly in the absence of any viable alternative, the results probably mean Sunak remains safe as leader, but the party must still be dreading the approach of the next General Election, due sometime in the next 18 months.

One final thought. Neither Keir Mather or Sarah Dyke, the Lib Dem victor, can rest easy. Both their seats will be comprehensively dismembered in the boundary changes due to come into effect in the next few months. So they have to start all over again: It's a hard life being a politician.

A.B. In Lichfield, England, UK, also had time to weigh in:

I only have a few quick thoughts to add to that comprehensive analysis, though S.T. did omit that Count Binface triumphantly managed to finish ahead of Official Monster Raving Loony Party leader Howling Laud Hope in Uxbridge. A mighty victory for the Binface tendency over official loonyism there.

Attempting to put last night's results into American political terms, it's as if the opposition parties managed to comprehensively overturn massive Republican majorities in two ruby-red districts in West Virginia and Texas with PVIs north of R+20, but fell tantalizingly short of taking a wealthy suburban New York district with a PVI of R+7 because of a local dispute over the Mayor of New York's environmental policies. There's a lot of attention over the Uxbridge result in U.K. media today, but this shouldn't obscure the scale of the crushing Lib Dem victory in Somerton or the record-setting Labour victory in Selby. Average the decline in the Conservative Party vote across all three seats, and the Tory vote went down by 21%—very close to national opinion polls which currently show an average decline in the party's vote share of 18% since the 2019 general election. The Conservative Party should also be seriously worried about the scale of tactical voting in the by-elections. It's clear that many Labour and LibDem supporters held their noses and voted for the party best-placed to remove the Tories rather than their own; Labour finished fifth in Somerton, while the LibDems finished sixth in Selby. Similar behavior in a national election would represent a significant risk to the Conservatives.

Two quick closing thoughts: I disagree slightly with S.T. over the observation that the Selby seat will be "comprehensively dismembered" at the next election. Instead, it will be returning to something closer to its pre-2010 borders, which likely favor Labour, which held the seat from 1997 to 2010. Finally, the great irony of the Uxbridge result last night is that the ULEZ low-emissions policy, which everyone this morning is arguing helped the Conservative Party save Boris Johnson's former seat, was originally introduced in central London by former mayor... Boris Johnson. But then, political consistency was never a strength of populist movements.

G.S. in Basingstoke, England, UK, was too busy to join the conversation, but did send this along: The only comment I'll make, with reference to my own analysis the other day, is: Don't bet unless you've a copy of Grey's Sports Almanac.

Thanks for the comments, all, and on such a tight deadline, no less! (Z)

This item appeared on Read it Monday through Friday for political and election news, Saturday for answers to reader's questions, and Sunday for letters from readers.                     State polls                     All Senate candidates