Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton by-elections 2022: Analysis

Ben Farmer

Account Executive

Ted Boyson

Account Executive

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Written by Ben Farmer, Mo Hussein, and Ted Boyson

Overview

With yesterday’s two by-elections perhaps the first clear indicators of the fallout from the Partygate scandals and the cost-of-living crisis, the Wakefield result will be seen by Labour as a crucial sign that they are making progress in key ‘Red Wall’ seats and achieving cut-through amongst many of the voters that they want – and need – to win over and win back. Meanwhile in Tiverton and Honiton, the Lib Dems secured a notable victory which strengthens their hand in rural and traditional Tory seats. Despite both Labour and Lib Dem sources being quietly confident of wins in the respective races, there will be relief in both camps that they were able to galvanise voters and capitalise on the decline in the Prime Minister’s popularity and questions over his integrity.

Some Tories have understandably been quick to play down the significance of the by-election results. Speaking at the Wakefield count, local Conservative MP Andrea Jenkyns (Morley and Outwood) insisted that she still saw “great love” for Boris on the doorstep and suggested “apathy,” rather than true support for Keir Starmer’s Labour Party, was at play. However, it was perhaps Boris Johnson’s apathy, rather than voters’, that likely had more of an impact on the result, with the PM failing to visit Wakefield once during the campaign. Some may say this shows an awareness of the decline in his popularity amongst voters and that his presence in the campaign may have done more harm than good – but the failure to show up to a key marginal, where voters already feel left-behind and ignored by the Government as the cost-of-living crisis spirals, does seem at best questionable.

The Government will be engaging in plenty of expectation management and playing down the significance of the results for various reasons. Many will point out the idea of mid-term blues, in which it is very easy for voters to be drawn to the idea of change – particularly after 12 years of one Government. They will also point out that the appalling circumstances triggering the by-elections perhaps sways these campaigns in a way that does not necessarily reflect a wider national picture. Additionally, the idea that many votes against the Tories have simply been protest votes, as well as many postal votes taking place some time ago and the overall low turnout, add to this argument. However, there will be very real concerns for the Government that the Conservative Party is not appealing or cutting through in the right way to different wings of a newer and broader base of voters. This, and the highly personal aspect of Johnson’s leadership being called into question by voters, means there is no such thing as a safe Tory seat. There will need to be serious questions asked about the direction of the party as it attempts to fight for the Red Wall and Blue Wall simultaneously, which demand very different policy solutions both in terms of regional needs and what voters want.

What’s more, not all Tories have been quick to cite the “great love” for the PM after two hugely disappointing and damaging results – the resignation of Conservative Party Chairman Oliver Dowden is a significant blow. Dowden said that he shared supporters’ distress and disappointment at recent events, and that “somebody must take responsibility.” So far this view has been backed publicly by two Conservative colleagues, but it remains to be seen whether the PM himself will take responsibility as his position becomes all the more untenable; and there will likely be many Tory MPs who privately wish the vote of no confidence had been brought about three weeks later. Whilst the PM is still left with a working majority of around 75, this does not mean he commands authority or can count on backbenchers’ support. When asked about division within the party, supporters of the PM will try to associate the Conservative backbench rebels with the losses by saying the public don’t vote for divided parties, but this is unlikely to be taken very seriously by the rebels.

For the Labour leader, the party’s first by-election gain since 2012 is an important sign that the party can make progress in the seats it so badly needs to win back to have any chance at governing the country, and that the swathe of discontent towards the Government amidst recent events can translate into actual votes for Labour on the ground. Starmer will be pleased that recent attempts to call into question his personality, alongside questions around Labour’s response to widespread industrial action, have not really landed, and the result will be seen as an affirmation that the push to paint him as a credible leader and potential PM is paying off. What remains to be seen now, though, is how the party can seize this momentum. Labour will need to harness voters’ discontent with Government and the difficulties they are facing daily into a policy push that drives home their true vision and intentions for the country. For now, Labour have won in Wakefield by listening to voters’ concerns about a Government that no longer works for or represents them. They will now need to convince the country how a Labour Government can work for them instead.

Meanwhile, Sir Ed Davey’s Liberal Democrats will be pleased to secure another by-election win after Chesham & Amersham and North Shropshire wins last year. The party will feel an increased confidence that no ‘Blue Wall’ seat is out of their reach after overturning such a large majority in Tiverton and Honiton. Challenges for the Lib Dems moving forward include how to scale their fight against the Conservatives beyond targeted by-elections to nationally at the next general election and dealing with persistent rumours and calls for an electoral pact between the Lib Dems and Labour to take on the Conservatives. Whilst a formal pact is unlikely, the risk of a Lib/Lab coalition is seen as a key ‘wedge issue’ by CCHQ. Although, it is also worth considering that a formal alliance may not be needed, given that voters are now doing this themselves with trends in tactical voting – a real worry for the Tories. Despite this, the Lib Dems have shown there are increasingly able to grow their supporter base beyond the strongholds of South-West London and pockets in other cities to become a major threat to seats the Conservatives have long considered safe.

Tiverton and Honiton

Neil Parish’s resignation in early May led to an intriguing by-election race in Devon’s Tiverton and Honiton, seen by many as in the heart of the ‘Blue Wall.’ After a closely fought and unpredictable race, Richard Foord of the Liberal Democrats won the Tiverton and Honiton by-election with 22,537 (53.1% of the vote), compared to the Conservative candidate Helen Hurford’s 16,393 votes (38.4% of the vote. Foord secured a swing of 38.6% and overturned a 24,239 majority from the 2019 elections, thought to have been the largest ever majority overturned in a by-election.

Despite coming third in the constituency in 2019, the Lib Dems took the lead on challenging the Conservatives, with Labour focusing on Wakefield instead. As many predicted, much of the focus in the campaign was around Boris Johnson with Hurford repeatedly struggling to defend Johnson’s performance such as on ethics and Partygate. Local issues also played their role, especially issues around agriculture and post-Brexit farming for this rural community with a large farming population.

For a consistently Conservative, previously ultra-safe seat, the loss is highly worrying for the Government – particularly given the scale of the majority overturned, the largest ever in a by-election. It shows the difficulty for the PM of fighting on two fronts, having channelled much of his focus on ‘Red Wall’ seats in the North and Midlands, and after suffering another significant loss to them, the Conservative Party will have to view the Lib Dems as a true threat in the South West and much of the ‘Blue Wall’ elsewhere.

Wakefield 

Labour won the Wakefield by-election, regaining the key West Yorkshire seat it lost to the Conservatives in 2019. Simon Lightwood defeated Tory candidate Nadeem Ahmed with a total of 13,166 votes to 8,241, overturning the majority of 3,358 previously held by disgraced ex-MP Imran Ahmad Khan. Both the symbolism and scale of the victory will bring smiles to Labour and grimaces across Government this morning, with Lightwood generating a majority of 4,925 votes over Ahmed after a stark drop for the Tories of 17.26% of the vote share, and an overall swing of 12.7% from Conservative to Labour. The scale of the result cannot be played down – Wakefield has always been a marginal seat and this is the first majority of over 4,000 votes in the constituency since the 2005 election.

The campaign in Wakefield was largely framed around these wider national questions on the impact of the cost-of-living crisis, Government competence, and the PM’s suitability and conduct, with Lightwood saying the result has “turned the page on Tory neglect” and indicates an intolerance at the PM’s “contempt for this country.” Keir Starmer also hailed the result as a sign that the country has “lost confidence” in the Tories. That is not to say that the seat won itself – Lightwood had to appeal to the local electorate and Labour will be glad that discontent and resignations from the constituency party over the candidate shortlist, and questions about Lightwood’s true local credentials, did not end up denting his campaign. Instead, Lightwood, an NHS worker, put forward an energetic campaign that showed his understanding of constituents’ concerns, particularly amidst the cost-of-living crisis as Lightwood was keen to stress his experience of growing up in poverty.

Labour focused significant resource and energy on the by-election, highlighting the importance of overturning Red Wall seats and the mountain they still have to climb, despite today’s victory. Whilst some might argue Labour should still be performing better in such areas, earning the largest majority in the seat since 2005 is a very positive sign for the party despite a lower turnout as is often seen in by-elections. The government had sought to utilise the Levelling Up agenda to deliver investment in Conservative Red Wall seats and retain them at the next election, with Wakefield receiving £45m of government funding since 2019. However, despite the investment, losses like Wakefield mean questions will be asked of the PM’s promise to his backbenchers that he is the best person to hold onto the Red Wall.

Overall, Labour organisers very much made the campaign a ‘referendum on Boris Johnson,’ aimed at sending a message to the Prime Minister and capitalising on the anger, hardship and sense of betrayal many voters on the ground have felt. With this convincing result for Labour, the message being sent from Wakefield is very clear.

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