In addition, by-elections were a tale of two backyards: Johnson’s and Sunak’s. Moreover, Sunak was a loser.
Steve Tuckwell, the newly elected representative for Uxbridge, stated, “Sadiq Khan lost Labour in this election.” (Photo: Jordan Pettitt/PA Wire)
“All politics is local” This quote from veteran American politician Tip O’Neill is occasionally, but infrequently, used in Britain.
In our local elections and the vast majority of by-elections, the desire to “send a message” about the condition of the nation is frequently the driving force behind the most spectacular victories.
Prior to last night, Labour and the Liberal Democrats hoped to convert the typical “free hits” for electors into three hits against the Government.
But when the Tories barely held on in Uxbridge, it became obvious that the simple narrative of national unhappiness would be disrupted by a localized cry of pain at the “travel tax” characterization of the Mayor of London’s plan to expand his Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez).
Rishi Sunak’s problem is that by converting the Uxbridge election into “a referendum on Ulez” (a £12.50-per-day charge for driving a polluting vehicle), he deprived his party of the opportunity to claim credit for government policies or performance.
When newly elected Uxbridge MP Steve Tuckwell stated, “Sadiq Khan has lost Labour this election,” he placed the responsibility for Labour’s failure squarely on the shoulders of the Mayor, not Keir Starmer. In fact, Starmer’s team is likely to become more adamant that they cannot propose or say anything that suggests they cannot be trusted with the money and finances of electors.
Importantly, the Uxbridge result actually shares a common factor with the Somerton and Selby results: it’s the cost of living, fool!
In the seats of the west country and Yorkshire, word on the street was that mortgage woes (and associated rent woes), rising food and energy costs, and the state of the National Health Service were the primary reasons for the Tories’ unpopularity.
And the mere magnitude of these losses for the Conservatives will serve as a reminder to many Conservative lawmakers that a large majority means little in the current environment.
Even Sunak, whose rural North Yorkshire district borders a portion of Selby and is so similar to it, may not feel particularly secure. If Labour can gain such a seat, the “Blue Wall” appears more vulnerable than ever to a Lib-Lab pincer movement of tactical voting.
There’s also the fact that last night was in some ways a tale of two backyards: Johnson’s and Sunak’s. And while Johnson’s rough-hewn populism was met with defiance in Uxbridge, the Prime Minister was defeated in his own local hinterland.
Remember that the “Red Wall” did not participate in these three by-elections. Recent polling indicates that Labour is on track to regain all 45 seats they lost in the North and Midlands in 2019.
This suggests that, despite the fact that many voters were relieved to see Johnson go, the Tories’ loss of Johnson’s raw appeal among some working classes will reduce their national vote in a general election.
Keir Starmer is now more aware than ever that “not being Corbyn” is never enough to win an election for the Labour Party. However, being “not Johnson” proves to be hopelessly inadequate for Sunak as well.
Ultimately, the economy is the most important factor at the national and local levels. And both men will need to provide electors with more positive reasons to vote for them than negative reasons not to vote for the ghosts of former leaders.