Tories crushed by tactical voting

Good morning. Here is the news. The Conservatives have held on to win the closely-fought by-election in Tiverfield and Waketown. Here are the figures.

No, of course that’s not what happened, except in one sense: those are the combined totals for yesterday’s by-elections. Taken together, the Conservatives did win more votes than either Labour or the Liberal Democrats, despite losing both seats badly. However, that calculation is not the comforting news for the Tories it might seem. It is in fact terrible news, for it shows how tactical voting could cost the Tories power at the next general election.
So, in Wakefield, Labour’s share rose by 8.1 percentage points, while the Lib Dems saw their meagre 2019 share of 3.8 per cent more than halve to 1.8. In contrast, in Tiverton the Lib Dem share jumped by 38.1 percentage points, while Labour’s share fell by 15.9 points from second place to a deposit-losing 3.7 per cent.
To be sure, by-elections are unusual beasts. Tactical voting often takes place on a far larger scale than in general elections. However, to see such a contrast in two by-elections held on the same day is instructive. Tactical voting is back with a vengeance. It had virtually no impact on the 2019 general election. The prospect that anti-Tory vote-switching might make Jeremy Corbyn Prime Minister deterred many people who might otherwise have voted to remove Boris Johnson from Downing Street.
I would be amazed if the intensity of yesterday’s vote-switching is repeated at the next general election. But even a fraction of the tactical voting we have seen overnight could wreck the Tories’ chances of staying in office.
Meanwhile, where do these two results fit in the record books for Conservative by-election defeats? As it happens, both Wakefield and Tiverton & Honiton come sixth in the list of post-1945 gains for their respective winners. The swing to the Lib Dems in the South West, just under 30 per cent, was more than twice as big as the swing to Labour in the North – but Lib Dems often do secure massive by-election swings.

As the tables show, the three Lib Dem gains in the past year are all near the top of their historic list of greatest hits, while Labour’s Wakefield win stands in the middle of a much shorter list.

Last night’s victorious candidates should beware that even huge by-election victories provide no immunity from defeat the following general election. The Tories regained many of the seats in those lists, such as Christchurch, Torrington and Sutton & Cheam from the Liberals and Lib Dems, and Mid Staffordshire, Corby and Monmouth from Labour.

The Corby by-election is worth noting. It was the only other seat that Labour has gained since the Tories returned to government in 2010. The swing to Labour in 2012 was virtually identical to last night’s swing in Wakefield. At the following general election in 2015, the Tories not only gained Corby but went on to gain seats across the country and secure an overall majority in parliament.

In short, I wouldn’t put any money on the Lib Dems holding on to any of their three latest by-election gains. Labour has a better chance in Wakefield, even though it achieved nothing like the swings that, in the mid 1990s did prefigure the Blair landslide in 1997. The thing that should really make the Tories nervous is not just the slide in their own support (dreadul but hot historically the worst) but the extra impact of ruthless tactical voting yesterday that left the Tories with the most votes overall but miles behind the winner in both constituencies.

Oliver Dowden’s resignation as Conservative Party chairman will not restore his party’s fortunes. Boris Johnson’s departure from the party leadership just might.

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