2023’s by-elections: Do they show what will happen in 2024?


Jack Rogers (he/him) looks into the implications of the 2023 by-election

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Image by Jamie Street via Unsplash

By Jack Rogers

In January 2023, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour Leader Keir Starmer both set out their priorities for government. Since then, there have been seven parliamentary by-elections, giving the public the chance to have their say on the parties’ messages.

These by-elections were the result of sitting MPs resigning, who represented a range of seats in the North West, Yorkshire, Scotland, West Midlands, South West and the East of England. With this wide geographical range, as well as a mix of safe Conservative seats and marginals, this has comprehensively revealed what the by-elections mean for the Conservative Government.

Of the seven by-elections, Labour held West Lancashire in February, then the Tories held Uxbridge and South Ruislip in July, whilst losing Selby and Ainsty to Labour and Somerton and Frome to the Liberal Democrats. In October, Labour gained Rutherglen and Hamilton West from the Scottish National Party, whilst also gaining Mid Bedfordshire and Tamworth from the Tories. These results all showed swings – often large vote swings – to the opposition party. However, this is not uncommon for an incumbent government.

The impact of turnout:

On average, these by-elections had a 30 percent lower turnout than for the general election, but this is also not uncommon for by-elections. However, these results do give a good indication of how people were feeling about the incumbent government.

After the October by-elections, Greg Hands, the Chairman of the Conservative Party said “I might say that the big problem we have is still Conservative voters staying at home”, focusing on low turnout as the reason for the large swings to Labour. This is despite the Conservatives claiming their gain of the Hartlepool seat in 2021 was “a mandate for us to continue to deliver”, despite having a lower turnout (42 percent) than the Tamworth, Mid Bedfordshire, Somerton, Frome and the Selby and Ainsty by-elections.

Turnout did impact the result in Mid Bedfordshire, where Labour decreased their votes from 2019, but still achieved a swing of 20 percent of the vote share from the Conservatives in a seat never held by Labour. The Conservatives’ repetition of their turnout message suggests the government’s priorities are not cutting through to change the national polls. Additionally, in the safe Labour seat of West Lancashire, it maintained a higher turnout than recent Labour holds, such as the 2022 Stretford by-election, showing that the turnout of Labour supporting voters has not been reducing as heavily. However, this is not uncommon to happen to an incumbent government, but the swings are more forceful than in previous years.

The reasons for seven resignations:

Boris Johnson, the former Prime Minister, resigned as MP for Uxbridge on 12 June over the Privileges Committee report saying that he lied to Parliament about how much he knew about ‘Partygate’. On the same day, Nigel Adams (Selby) and Nadine Dorries (Mid Bedfordshire) resigned over claims their peerage by Johnson was blocked by Sunak’s government. Then, in September, Chris Pincher (Tamworth) resigned as an MP after his suspension from Parliament was upheld over groping allegations. It was these allegations that caused Johnson’s downfall as PM, with mass resignations over what Johnson knew about Pincher before bringing him into government.

In total, four of the seven MPs who resigned were closely linked to the Johnson government and its controversies, representing the first sign for the public to voice their opinion about this. These elections specifically showed some success in the opposition framing Johnson’s legacy on the new candidates for these seats, with Sunak’s government’s policies on Brexit and the economy having a limited impact on how the voters felt about the Conservative party.

The recent wave of misconduct in office allegations, seen by Pincher, as well as David Warbuton in Somerton & Frome and the upcoming recall petition for Peter Bone also shows the impact of scandal on the results. The current scale of MPs being removed in light of these scandals could affect people’s perceptions of the Conservatives at a general election.

How the by-elections helped adjust the government’s message:

These by-elections have been impactful on how the parties frame their priorities, particularly regarding Uxbridge and its aftermath. The Uxbridge by-election was a shock hold for the Tories, as it was their most marginal seat up for election in July whilst safer seats were taken by Labour and the Lib Dems. This was mainly due to the local focus on ULEZ and its expansion into Uxbridge, disproportionately costing many residents. This inspired Sunak to focus on the wider cost of climate policies, delaying the ban on petrol and diesel cars by five years as well as delaying a ban on gas boilers.

However, whilst this slightly changed the national polls, it did not stop the over 20 percent swings to Labour in the October by-elections. The impact that Sunak’s climate shift will have in the General Election may be different, where the dividing line between Labour and the Tories on climate policies will be more prominent.

Looking back on the last year’s by-elections helps to show where Labour have been able to make large gains based on the performance and scandals of the last few years of government. They also help to show where the Tories have been able to adapt to try to reduce losses in further elections. However, these by-election gains, whilst helpful for broader predictions, cannot determine what will happen across the country on one day in 2024.