What does Labour’s double by-election victory mean for the next general election?

Labour leader Keir Starmer

In a historic moment for Labour, the opposition overturned huge Conservative majorities to score two by-election victories – knocking further chunks out of the Tories’ reelection hopes. 

On Thursday (19 October) Labour swept to victory in both Mid Bedfordshire – Nadine Dorries’ former seat – and Tamworth, wins which leader Sir Keir Starmer described as “history in the making” and “redrawing the political map”. 

Both seats were up for grabs after their respective MPs – both Boris Johnson loyalists – resigned. Dorries stepped down after she was snubbed for a peerage – issuing a scathing letter to prime minister Rishi Sunak two months later – and Chris Pincher resigned after he lost an appeal against a proposed suspension for drunkenly groping two men.

In Mid Bedfordshire, a Tory safe seat since 1931 with a majority of 24,664, Labour’s Alistair Strathern beat off Conservative candidate Festus Akinbusoye and the Lib Dems to secure an unprecedented swing of 20.5 per cent to win by 1,192 votes. 

On the same night, further up north in Tamworth, Labour’s Sarah Edwards received 11,719 votes while Tory contender Andrew Cooper garnered 10,403 votes – resulting in a majority of 1,316 for Labour with a swing of 23.89 per cent.

Labour leader Keir Starmer with new Labour MPs Alistair Strathern and Sarah Edwards. (JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

While Starmer has said he does not want to get “carried away” by the wins, he told voters in Mid Bedfordshire that he thinks it “really is a game changer”.

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“There is a confidence now in this changed Labour Party that we can go anywhere across the country, put up a fight and win seats that we’ve never won before,” he said, as quoted by the BBC

Taking to social media, both of the new MPs thanked voters and vowed to not let them down. 

Edwards described the win as the “privilege of my life”, adding in her victory speech that it sends “a clear message to Sunak and the Conservative Party that [voters] have had enough of this failed government, which has crashed the economy and destroyed our public services”. 

“The people of Tamworth have made it clear. It’s time for change,” she said. 

In his first speech as an MP, Strathern echoed Starmer words by saying voters in Mid Bedfordshire “have made history”. 

“After decades of being taken for granted, feeling left behind, being underrepresented, they made a decision it was time for a change,” he said, “Nowhere is off limits for this Labour Party and tonight’s result proves it.”

Tory chairman Greg Hands admitted the results were “disappointing” and vowed to get Conservative voters back to the polls.

Turnout was down significantly in both seats, and Tory spokespersons and MPs were quick to make the point that the results were evidence of loss of faith in the Conservatives – rather than real enthusiasm for Labour under Keir Starmer.

A Conservative Party on the verge of giving up

The victories in two Tory safe seats set a disastrous precedent for the Conservatives, and as the next general election looms large on the minds of both politicians and voters, Thursday’s by-election results suggest Labour has a fighting chance of getting back into power.

The next general election is slated to take place before January 2025, with the public likely going to the polls in either spring or autumn 2024. 

Tory insiders have suggested that the party is more focussed on coming back after defeat than actually battling for a general election win.

One MP said, as reported by The Guardian: “MPs are obviously jittery. There is no enthusiasm for Labour but also an absence of any apparent strategy from the government.

“If we get it wrong, we risk turning a challenging situation into a disaster.”

MP for Devizes and co-chair of New Conservatives Danny Kruger, who has been a vocal supporter of schools ‘outing’ trans pupils to parents against their will, said the PM needs to be “more coherent, more robust and braver” on areas including trans rights, tax cuts and migration.

As it stands, the public are increasingly dissatisfied with the Tories, who have held onto power through a 13-year revolving door of prime ministers, the Covid-19 pandemic, the cost-of-living crisis and numerous scandals. 

YouGov data shows that in April 2021, the government had a 37 per cent approval rate, by October 2023 that number plummeted to just 15 per cent – with 65 per cent of those surveyed reporting disapproval. 

While Ipsos’ latest opinion and voter intention polls reveal Labour scored 44 per cent – compared with the Tories with 24 per cent – when people were asked who they would vote for. 

Equally, 80 per cent of those surveyed by Ipsos said they were dissatisfied with the government, opposed to 12 per cent who were satisfied. 

The prime minister was found to have a 52 per cent unfavourable rating, compared to a favourable score of 24 per cent. 

Of course, six months or even a year is an exceptionally long time in politics – for example, this time last year. Liz Truss was PM and being trolled by a lettuce – and so the tides could arguably turn in back in Sunak’s favour. 

However, with Labour’s resounding victories in previously safe seats for the Conservative Party, Starmer will turn his attention to regaining seats in the Red Wall and those with much smaller Tory majorities elsewhere. 

Sunak has his work cut out for him, and in the run up to the general election, the task ahead for the Tories is not set to get any easier.