LABOUR’S failure to take former prime minister Boris Johnson’s old parliamentary seat in the by-election last week shows the party still has a long way to go to win power, leader Sir Keir Starmer said last Saturday (22).
The party won in Selby and Ainsty, a once-safe Conservative parliamentary seat in northern England in last Thursday’s (20) election, but suffered a narrow loss in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, which Johnson represented.
That result has given prime minister Rishi Sunak some breathing space as he seeks to reduce Labour’s poll lead before a national election expected next year.
“If anyone needed reminding that there is still a long way to go, Uxbridge is the reminder,” Sir Keir said in a speech at Labour’s National Policy Forum. “That result in Uxbridge demonstrates there is never any reason to be complacent.”
For the Tories, the erasure of the party’s 19,000 majority in the Somerton and Frome seat in southwest England, and its 20,000 majority in Selby and Ainsty, represent bitter blows ahead of an expected general election in 2024.
“By-elections midterm for an incumbent government are always difficult, they rarely win them,” Sunak told reporters last Friday (21) morning, while visiting Uxbridge and South Ruislip.
He said the win in the north London constituency showed that the upcoming election was not a “done deal” for Labour. He told reporters: “The message I take away is we have to double down, stick to our plan and deliver for people.”
But the scale of the challenge for the Conservative party was highlighted by the loss of the once safe seat of Selby and Ainsty, where Labour overturned the biggest Tory majority at a by-election since the Second World War.
“This is a big step forward towards the general election. Never before in our history have we done this,” Sir Keir told reporters in Selby.
“We hear that cry for change away from the chaos, away from those rising bills, the crumbling public services,” he added during a victory visit there last Friday.
Ex-Tory MP Nigel Adams had prompted the vote when he quit after failing to be nominated for a peerage last month.
The Tories also suffered a crushing loss in a third vote to the Liberal Democrats in Somerton and Frome. The contest was held after its former Tory MP David Warburton stood down after admitting cocaine use.
With stubbornly high inflation, economic stagnation, rising mortgage rates, industrial unrest and long waiting times to use the state-run health service, the party had been braced for the possibility of losing all three seats.
Sunak is expected to reshuffle his senior ministers soon to pick his team to fight the next election.
In national opinion polls, the Tories are trailing Labour by about 20 points, making it difficult to win a fifth consecutive term. But Labour could struggle to secure a clear parliamentary majority.
Sunak kicked off the year by making five key promises to voters, including halving inflation, growing the economy and cutting waiting times at the over-stretched NHS. He has made little headway on most of the pledges, and there are persistent fears the UK will tip into recession this year as the high interest rates constrain spending.
Sunak’s net favourability has fallen to its lowest level (-40) since he entered Downing Street, with two-thirds of Britons saying they have an unfavourable view of him, according to YouGov.
John Curtice, Britain’s best-known pollster, said the Uxbridge result suggested the most likely outcome of a national vote was a hung parliament, and Sir Keir might see more debate within the party about his safety-first approach.
Curtice told the BBC the Tories had an “awful long way to go” and both leaders had “been left with something to think about in the wake of these results”.
The Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election was triggered after Johnson resigned as an MP last month. It came after he found out that a cross-party parliamentary committee had concluded he had deliberately lied to parliament about lockdown-breaking parties during the Covid pandemic, and recommended a 90-day suspension.
Sir Keir said last Friday the expansion of London’s ultra low emission zone (Ulez), planned for next month by the city’s Labour mayor Sadiq Khan, had been decisive in the party candidate not winning in Uxbridge. Khan said the policy to expand Ulez remained the right one.
The Tories made attacking the mayor’s flagship anti-pollution policy central to their campaign.
“In an election, policy matters,” Sir Keir said last Saturday. “We are doing something very wrong if policies put forward by the Labour party end up on each and every Tory leaflet.
“We’ve got to face up to that and to learn the lesson.”
“We’ve got to ask ourselves seriously – are our priorities the priorities of working people or are they just baggage that shows them we don’t see the country through their eyes?” (Agencies)