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Former Prime Minister Harold Wilson once famously stated that a week is a long time in politics. This parliamentary term has thus felt like an eternity. Back in May 2021, it seemed like Britain was set for 10 years of Boris Johnson, having smashed Labour in another one of its Red Wall seats (Hartlepool) and eaten deep into Labour’s traditional heartlands during the local elections. Just two months later, Keir Starmer was barely 300 votes away from losing his job, having clung onto Batley and Spen by his fingertips.
Two years later and everything has changed. The Conservatives have seen off two Prime Ministers, opinion polls currently show Labour winning a landslide greater than Tony Blair’s 1997 victory, and the less said about the state of the British economy, the better…
Rishi Sunak now faces his greatest test since the disastrous local elections in May. His former boss now turned political rival, Boris Johnson has given the Prime Minister the headache of three by-elections after his resignation triggered the resignation of loyal MP Nigel Adams and MP David Warburton.
According to the markets, Sunak is staring down the barrel of three defeats. This would make him the first Prime Minister to lose three by-elections in the same evening since Harold Wilson himself, back in 1968.
Let’s take a look at where the value lies in the upcoming by-election treble.
Uxbridge and South Ruislip
It’s only appropriate that we open with the former Prime Minister’s seat. Since its creation in 2010, Uxbridge and South Ruislip has always returned a Conservative MP, albeit on rather precarious majorities. In 2019, Boris Johnson won this seat with a majority of 7210.
Since their impressive victory in Hartlepool back in 2021, the Conservatives have lost four out of the six seats they have defended at by-elections. Just a year ago, the Tories were on the receiving end of an 8000-vote swing in Wakefield, at a time when Starmer’s Labour weren’t doing particularly well in national polling. Today, the national polling average gives Labour a healthy 20% lead.
The fact that this by-election will be held on the same day as the Somerton and Frome by-election will also greatly benefit Labour. Indeed, the so-called ‘progressive alliance’ will no doubt be out in full force on Thursday, with Labour funds being 100% committed to Uxbridge whilst allowing the Lib Dems to fully focus their resources in Somerton, and vice versa. Labour supporters thus needn’t worry about a potential ‘split of the vote’.
Finally, the demographics in Uxbridge and South Ruislip have been shifting in Labour’s favour. Indeed, the constituency has become younger, more university educated and more ethnically diverse; all demographic changes that have favoured Labour in the past. Furthermore, the electoral calculus ranks Uxbridge and South Ruislip in the ‘Kind Young Capitalist’ tribe- young, quite economically right-wing but mildly globalist and socially liberal. Arguably, a target for Keir Starmer’s brand of politics. It is no wonder then that the markets currently have Labour way out at 1/12.
The one thorn in Labour’s side has been the announcement of the extension of the Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) by Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan. The proposal would see new taxes introduced on cars that do not meet certain emissions standards. Being a suburban commuter town on the edge of metropolitan London, this constituency is very much ‘white van man’ territory. Indeed, around four in five households own a car or van- almost double the inner London average. The ULEZ’s extension has thus caused much anger amongst the electorate and has even prompted two of the candidates to change their ballot names to “Anti-ULEZ” and “No-ULEZ”.
The Tories will be hoping that voters use the mammoth-sized ballot of 17 candidates to place their anti-Johnson vote elsewhere. Whilst I believe the by-election result will be tighter than the polls giving Labour a ten-point lead suggest, I can’t see any other result than a red gain.
Selby and Ainsty
The North Yorkshire seat is certainly where the value lies on Thursday. Unbelievably, the markets are almost certain of a Labour victory with odds as low as 1/7. This, despite some election analytical experts, such as the New Statesman’s Ben Walker, claiming that the winner of this by-election could be decided by “the flip of a coin”.
Admittedly, Labour have some reason to believe that they can win a seat at the very depths of Tory heartland. Indeed, the Red Rose managed to return an MP in the previous permutation of the White Rose seat on three occasions during Blair’s apogee.
Retired homeowners have always been the bedrock of the Conservative electorate. Recent hikes in mortgage rates, however, have dealt a rather hefty blow to an already-delicate Tory coalition. This would be particularly felt in a constituency like Selby and Ainsty which ranks in the top 40 in the country for mortgage holders and in which 37% of households have a mortgage. Homeowners proved to be the soft power behind the fall of Liz Truss and could prove to be the catalyst to a Tory loss in Selby.
However, since its redrawn boundaries in 2010, the constituency of Selby and Ainsty has always returned a Conservative MP. Furthermore, its resigning MP Nigel Adams has increased his majority at every election. In 2019, Adams won a stonking majority of over 20,000. Labour would thus require a swing of 18%, something it has never achieved before. Although the Lib Dems have become quite accustomed to overturning large Tory majorities, this would be a very unusual feat for Labour. In fact, the largest majority reversal Labour has ever achieved was a 15k majority in the 1990 Mid Staffordshire by-election, coming off the back of the introduction of the highly unpopular poll tax which resulted in the downfall of Britain’s longest-serving Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Whilst the national polling average does suggest a 20-point Labour lead, many respected pollsters (such as Redfield & Wilton, YouGov and Opinium) still have Labour under the 18-point swing required to take the seat.
The demographics are also against Labour. Indeed, the Electoral Calculus places Selby and Ainsty under the ‘strong right’ tribe- very right-wing economically but also nationalist, socially conservative and usually retired. This would thus be new territory for Keir Starmer’s Labour.
Labour would have to depend on two things in order to do the unthinkable. Firstly, they must hope for a low turnout in which traditional elderly Tory voters are dissatisfied enough not to come out and vote. Secondly, they must out squeeze the smaller parties’ vote share- a feat often harder to achieve at a by-election compared to a general election. The aforementioned ‘progressive alliance’ should once again be a benefit to Labour in Selby and Ainsty but Reform’s average national polling of eight per cent is yet to translate in any real elections, having lost their deposits in many by-elections up and down the country these past years.
If Labour are to win the 400-seat majority that some pollsters are predicting, then they must lay the marker by winning in Selby and Ainsty. A 20k+ majority swing in rural North Yorkshire would cause many Conservative MPs to panic about their own political future. With Johnson and his allies still lurking in the shadows, Sunak would have a lot of cause for concern.
Whilst I believe Labour have a good chance of winning here, I just cannot ignore the value behind the Conservatives holding onto a seat in their heartlands at 9/2.