The author is Professor of Political Science at Queen Mary University of London and co-author of UK General Election 2019
Anyone who has encountered a level crossing in France has probably seen the sign One train can hide another – One train can hide another.This warning also applies to two by-elections The Conservative Party lost this week. The Lib Dems’ victories in Tiverton and Honeyton were so dramatic that it risked overshadowing the significance of Labour’s so-called sloppy victories in Wakefield. However, with by-elections likely to herald an upcoming general election, the latter is as important as the former—if not more so.
Of course, that’s not to deny the importance of what happened in Devon on Thursday – and not just because it joins a British third party’s list of iconic victories going all the way back to Orpington in 1962. Successor Chesham and Amersham and North Shropshirewhich has completed a hat-trick of huge victories in the traditional true blue seats for Ed Davey’s party over the past year.
Granted, if the experience of the 1980s and 1990s is anything to go by, these three seats are likely to return to the Conservatives at the next general election – especially if their Devon fiasco is enough to convince Boris Johnson’s MPs to give up he. Eastbourne lost to the Liberal Democrats in 1990, prompting their predecessors to drop Margaret Thatcher and 1992 successor John Major.
But that’s no consolation at all for the Conservatives.somewhere 20 to 30 seats (It’s hard to be more accurate with recent border changes) The Lib Dems could take it from them by 10 percentage points in the general election. Tiverton and Honeyton’s swing was a truly terrible 30.
Moreover, what makes the results for the opposition parties, especially the Lib Dems, particularly encouraging, is that Labour voters appear willing to cast a tactical vote, putting aside any lingering resentment over the party’s 2010 alliance with the Conservatives. Yes, Richardford is the new MP for the constituency, mainly because the Conservatives’ vote fell by 22 percentage points, while the Liberal Democrats’ vote rose by 38 percentage points. But the fact that Labour’s vote share has plummeted from 19.5% to just 3.7% is also very convenient.
Crashes are important because there are 17 seats The Lib Dems were second only to the Conservatives in 2019, with Labour, Lib Dems and the Greens winning not only more votes than the Conservatives’ majority, but the Conservatives and Brexit Party combined. If the Lib Dems can squeeze Labour (and the Greens) at the next general election, as they did in the most recent by-election, those seats are ripe.
Sadly for Keir Starmer’s party there are actually relatively few seats where they won a decent second place in the last round, and Lib Dem voters return support in those seats And voting for Labour tactically could make a big difference.
Obviously, if the Lib Dems win a decent number of Conservative seats in the next general election, it won’t hurt Starmer’s chances of becoming prime minister, albeit perhaps as leader of the largest party, rather than an overall majority political party. But his main task is to persuade those who voted Conservatives in 2019 to switch (and in many cases back) Labour directly.
That’s why we shouldn’t ignore Wakefield.
Granted, the result has little support for Starmer and Labour, perhaps more reliant on a 17-point drop in Conservative votes than a 9-point rise in Labour. Labour may also be a little concerned that some ex-Conservative voters may have plumped for small gatherings rather than come to them.
But a 13-point swing in the so-called red wall seat should still not be dismissed. For the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats are clearly worrying. But even after Thursday, they weren’t their main rivals at all. That’s Labour, and the swing in Labour size achieved at Wakefield will be enough to knock the Conservatives out of office at the next election.