Wellingborough and Kingswood byelections: it’s never been this bad for the Conservatives, and it could still get worse

Directions to UK polling station

This article written by Jonathan Tonge, Professor of Politics, in our Department of Politics, was originally published in The Conversation:

Writing about Conservative byelection calamities has become something of a standard Friday practice for me. But the party’s defeat in Wellingborough in Northamptonshire was particularly brutal.

The Tory vote share was a mere 25% and the Conservative to Labour swing of 28.5% was the second biggest in modern electoral history. Only Dudley West in 1994, with a 29.1% swing, was bigger. That result was the clearest first demonstration that Labour would oust the Conservatives by a huge majority at the 1997 general election. Politics is on repeat.

The loss of Kingswood in South Gloucestershire was on a smaller (16.4%) swing, but is equally ominous for Rishi Sunak. Apart from in 1992, whichever party Kingswood chose over the half-century of its existence (it is about to be split into other constituencies) also formed the government.

An unprecedented year of byelections

The Conservatives have an increasingly unhappy knack of creating unnecessary and unwelcome (for them) contests. Since 2022, the Conservatives have now lost six byelections to Labour, on an average swing of 21%.

Byelections used to be prompted mainly by deaths. During this parliamentary term however, nine contests in Conservative-held seats have been products of resignations, sometimes after behaviour by the resigning MP that could most generously be described as “controversial”. Another was forced by a recall petition and three necessitated by deaths. Eight of the nine byelections following resignations were lost, as was the recall petition contest and one of the three caused by death.

The Kingswood contest was at least precipitated by a resignation on principle. Chris Skidmore resigned as an MP, angered by his government’s issuing of more oil and gas exploration licences.

Wellingborough’s byelection was caused by the recall petition lodged against Peter Bone under the Recall of MPs Act 2015. Bone, who was found to have bullied and exposed himself to a member of his staff, was suspended from the House of Commons for six weeks, triggering a petition signed by 13% of electors (10% is the threshold needed to hold a byelection).

Electors disillusioned by the Conservatives have had unprecedented opportunities to vent their displeasure. The net effect has been the biggest loss of seats during a parliamentary term since the 1960s.

Looking towards a general election

Is there any brighter news for the Conservatives? Amid the wreckage, the party could point to modest turnouts in both byelections, 38% in Wellingborough and 37% in Kingswood. But low byelection turnout is common. And the results are more a consequence of the Conservative vote dropping – Labour is not piling on the votes.

It is a huge leap of faith to assume the stay-at-homes were all Conservative-leaners who will show up at the general election. Conservative optimists could point to their Kingswood vote share being above that obtained in the constituency at general elections during the party’s wilderness years of 1997, 2001 and 2005. But the opposite was true with Thursday’s pitiful performance in Wellingborough.

The lingering Brexit bonus for the Conservatives may be neutered by the entry of Reform UK. Richard’s Tice’s outfit is no Ukip in its heyday or the Brexit Party, both of which offered a clear and popular core aim.

Nonetheless, Reform winning 13% of the vote in Wellingborough and 10% in Kingswood is an achievement worth noting, if unlikely to be replicated come general election day. The Conservatives won three-quarters of the Brexit Leave vote in 2019. Reform UK will act as a repository for disaffected Brexiteer Tories in particular.

No party has ever won an election when trailing its main rival on the economy. Even without Thursday’s news that the UK fell into a recession in 2023, the Conservatives are well behind Labour on economic stewardship.

It has been 45 years since the less popular leader of the “big two” won the election (Margaret Thatcher trailed James Callaghan in 1979) and Sunak trails Keir Starmer, albeit not as badly as his party lags behind Labour.

For the Conservatives, the one constant is that further trouble may be imminent. The party has removed the whip from Blackpool South MP, Scott Benton, who is appealing his 35-day suspension from the Commons over a lobbying scandal. If Benton loses his appeal, a recall petition will follow, potentially triggering a byelection in a seat classed as marginal, but on all current evidence a seaside stroll for Labour.

Rochdale embarrassment

There could be a very brief respite for Sunak – who may now face pointless calls for a new Conservative leader – as we head towards the farce of the Rochdale byelection on February 29, a contest Labour has managed to lose before it really started. The party dropped support for its official candidate, Azhar Ali, after leaked audio revealed Ali’s anti-Israel conspiracy theory comments regarding the October 7 Hamas attack.

Starmer’s initial ill-judged move to shore up Ali was absurd. Rochdale is thus high on the embarrassment scale for Labour, but as an issue affecting the outcome of the general election, it is negligible.

After an exceptional Brexit election in 2019 – no election in the past century has ever been dominated by a single issue to that extent – the 2024 general election will be decided by the economy, cost of living, perceptions of competence and leadership. Normal politics in other words. And on all the dials, Labour appears way ahead.The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.