ANDREW FISHER on yesterday’s by-election results, and the key role played by a Croydon politician in Labour’s flawed campaign in an outer London seat
Yesterday’s three parliamentary by-elections tell us that the Conservatives will lose the next General Election.
But it is the better-than-expected Conservative result in Uxbridge and South Ruislip that is dominating the headlines. That result has important lessons for Croydon, too, not least because a leading figure in Labour’s campaigning in Uxbridge was Croydon North MP Steve Reed.
In the local council elections held in May, the Conservatives suffered catastrophic defeats – losing councils and councillors to Labour, the LibDems and Greens.
National opinion polls today show Labour 15 to 20 points ahead of a Conservative Party which is languishing around just 30per cent public support.
So the results of the by-elections in Selby and Ainsty and in Somerton and Frome – both with massive swings against the Tories – repeat the message: people want the Tories out. Falling living standards, high inflation, NHS waiting lists, sleaze and corruption have all contributed to the British public turning firmly against the Conservatives.
But the story was different in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, the constituency formerly held by Boris Johnson, the disgraced ex-Prime Minister.
It was a monumental task for the Tories to deflect voters’ attentions from the scandals of Boris Johnson and the Government’s failure on the NHS, economy, schools, and much else besides.
The Tories decided their only viable strategy was to try to make the by-election a referendum on the London Mayor’s ULEZ expansion to outer London. It is an issue over which the local MP has no say.
ULEZ expansion only affects a minority of motorists, as most vehicles are already compliant, and no one who doesn’t drive. It also benefits everyone by improving London’s toxic air quality.
But, in a spectacular mis-step a couple of weeks before polling day, Labour’s candidate gave the Tory campaign a massive fillip by effectively saying “actually they’ve got a point”, and calling for the expansion of ULEZ to be deferred.
That changed the conversation of the election.
Before that, there were competing narratives: Labour saying, “Look at the state of the economy. Do you want to stick with this?” The Tories were asking voters, “Do you want to back Labour’s ULEZ?”
But once both candidates were telling voters that ULEZ is a problem, then naturally they were going to vote for the candidate who they perceive really means what they say.
This is why you don’t legitimise your opponents’ framing of an argument. It changes the debate and knocks you off-track.
Labour canvassers flooded into Uxbridge from across London, particularly from Croydon. But if you’ve already conceded the ground to your opponent, no amount of canvassers can turn the tide.
Labour’s by-election campaign in Uxbridge was run by Steve Reed – a strange choice given his vocal opposition to Low Traffic Neighbourhoods in Croydon did nothing for Labour’s prospects at the last local elections.
Reed was also the driving force behind Labour’s ill-fated campaign in Croydon against having a directly elected Mayor, wasting thousands of pounds in funds.
The result in Uxbridge was still bad for the Conservatives, though. Whereas more than 25,000 voted Tory in Uxbridge in 2019, that nearly halved to 13,900. Labour also lost votes, dropping from the 18,000 achieved by Ali Milani in 2019 to just 13,471.
The overall result was a 7 per cent swing to Labour. On a similar move the Conservatives would lose Chingford and Woodford Green, the seat of the former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith. But Chris Philp would cling on to his Croydon South seat against Labour challenger Ben Taylor – albeit with a reduced majority.
Some have suggested that the Uxbridge result bodes ill for Sadiq Khan in next year’s mayoral election. If there is a 7per cent swing to Labour in outer London, I suspect Mayor Khan would be overjoyed.
But Labour nationally is ahead in the polls predominantly as the passive receptacle of anti-Tory sentiment.
There is no wave of enthusiasm for Labour, but there is mass disenchantment with the Conservatives.
The Conservative vote collapsed: down from 36,000 to 10,000 in Somerton and Frome; and from 34,000 to 12,000 in Selby and Ainsty. As the leading pollster, John Curtice, said on this morning’s BBC Radio 4 Today programme, “Basically, the Tories are in as deep a hole as the polls suggest.”
The ball is the Conservatives’ court.
Opposition to ULEZ is not going to win them seats outside London, or even in many seats inside London.
They need policies to improve people’s lives. People are not taken in by the culture venality of Suella Braverman and other ghouls populating their Government frontbench.
They want the NHS improved, wages boosted, prices controlled.
But the Conservatives seem too dysfunctional and deflated to do anything.
If they stick to their apparent strategy currently – hoping something turns up and desperately pointing at small boats – they will lose and, as they did last night, lose badly.
- From 2015 to 2019, Andrew Fisher, pictured right, worked as the Labour Party’s Director of Policy under Jeremy Corbyn. He is a former chair of the Croydon Central Constituency Labour Party. Fisher is also the author of The Failed Experiment – and how to build an economy that works, and now writes regular columns for InsideCroydon
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