One night of by-elections – The collapse of two different Conservative walls

The Conservative Party have lost two parliamentary by-elections with the Labour Party gaining Wakefield and the Liberal Democrats winning in Tiverton and Honiton.

The results mark a dual hit for the party as voters across both its Red Wall in Yorkshire and its Blue Wall in Devon depart the party.

In Wakefield, the Labour Party regained a seat that it lost in 2019, one that it had previously held since the 1930s.  The Labour party candidate, Simon Lightwood, overturned a Conservative majority of 3,358, to gain the seat with his own majority of 4,925.  The turnout was a comparatively low 39.1%.

The by-election in Wakefield had been caused following the resignation of the former Conservative MP, Imran  Ahmad Khan, who was jailed in May for sexually assaulting a 15 year old boy in 2008.    The result which reflected at 12.9% swing to Labour was largely expected.

It the first time Labour has gained a by-election gain in over a decade.  The last time the party actually gained such a seat from a political opponent was in Corby back in 2012.

The more worrying result for the Conservatives is the loss of its previously safe seat in Tiverton and Honiton. Here the result was on an altogether larger scale, with a swing against the party of 30%, and a higher turnout of 52.3%.

In this part of Devon, the Conservatives had been defending a majority of 24,000 from the 2019 General Election, but Liberal Democrat candidate, Richard Foord, gained the seat with a majority of 6,144.  The by-election was caused following the resignation of the former Conservative MP, Neil Parish, after he was discovered watching pornography in the Commons chamber.

The Lib Dem victory in Tiverton and Honiton sees the party overturn the biggest ever majority in any UK by-election, and with relative ease. Following similar victories for the Lib Dems over the last 12 months in the previously safe seats of Chesham and Amersham and North Shropshire, the result will no doubt raise the pulses of Conservative MPs across the Blue Wall in southern England.  Both the previous defeats had occurred before the recent ‘partygate’ controversy.

Commenting on their party’s respective wins, the Labour leader Keir Starmer said, “Wakefield has shown the country has lost confidence in the Tories”, adding, “This result is a clear judgement on a Conservative Party that has run out of energy and ideas”.

Lib Dem leader, Sir Ed Davey said, “The Liberal Democrats have made political history with this stunning win.  It is the biggest by-election victory our country has ever seen”.

Boris Johnson, who is currently attending a Commonwealth leaders summit in Rwanda, yesterday told reporters that it was ‘crazy’ that he might quit if the Conservatives lost both by-elections, adding by-elections were ‘never necessarily easy for any government’.

In one sense, the prime minister’s statement is correct.

There have been a host of by-elections lost by a governing party, which have been retaken as the same party has come back to victory in the subsequent general election.  These include Eastbourne for the Conservatives in 1990, Birmingham Hodge Hill and Glasgow East for Labour in 2004 and 2008, and Rochester and Stroud and Richmond Park for the Conservatives in 2014 and 2016.

Come the next general election, the Liberal Democrats, who are masters at by-election victories, will also lack the political manpower to be able to mount equivalent campaigns across a wide range of seats.

Nonetheless with the prime minister considered very much on licence following his narrower than expected ‘no confidence’ vote victory from his MPs earlier in June, the by-election results represent a further threat to his underlying authority.

The relative size of the two signs, smaller in the traditionally more working class Red Wall seat of Wakefield, and larger in the more middle class Blue Wall seat of Tiverton and Honiton, also reaffirm something interesting in the underlying opinion polls.

The polling firm YouGov have shown the Conservatives are recording just 25% support amongst middle class voters (social groups A/B/C1).   This is way below the 36% level which the party is polling amongst working class voters (those in C2/D/E social groups).