Two weeks on from Labour’s strong victory in the Wakefield by-election, Matthew Oulton outlines what this result tells us about the current political situation, and what Labour should do going forward.
Just over a year ago, Labour held Batley and Spen by the narrowest of margins. In a fraught campaign characterised by foul play, tight margins, and challenge from the hard left by George Galloway, Labour managed to staunch the bleeding in Yorkshire, holding the seat by 323 votes.
Just two months before that, we lost Hartlepool. This red wall town, which had previously been a very safe seat held by former Northern Ireland Secretary and First Secretary of State Peter Mandelson, had been Labour since its inception. And in 2021, we lost it.
All that seems a very long time ago, now, with the mood decisively turning against the Conservatives. In Wakefield, which also fell as part of the 2019 wave, Simon Lightwood managed to overturn a majority of around 3000 and replace it with a Labour majority of almost 5000.
Winning back Wakefield is a huge deal. It’s a vindication of the first stage of Keir Starmer’s basic electoral strategy. Where many of us have been somewhat bored by his approach in recent months, he has single-mindedly continued to patiently but insistently explain to the electorate that he is not Jeremy Corbyn. He has not just used words, he has also shown through his treatment of antisemitism, his embrace of the Union Flag, and his treatment of former frontbenchers including Corbyn himself, that Labour has changed and can be trusted with power.
Also, not to be underestimated is the win by the Liberal Democrats in Titherton and Homerton on the same day. To overturn an even larger majority in a leave-voting seat should leave many Conservatives in formerly safe patches feeling very nervous. Tactical voting has returned with a vengeance, and this is again something that Keir Starmer and his shadow cabinet can take credit for. We aren’t scaring the electorate away from the Liberal Democrats and towards the Tories.
Of course, a lot of the effect in the short-term can be accounted for by the ongoing scandals that wrack the government. If we hadn’t faced our worse loss since the war in 2019, winning a seat in a by election caused by the prosecution of a sitting MP for sexual assault of a minor would not be the indicator of an electoral wave. Likewise, Partygate was certainly a major issue on the doorstep, and we cannot rely on it to be long-lasting.
Nevertheless, these tactical concerns for the Conservatives ultimately add up to strategic catastrophe. Firstly, they find themselves fighting on two fronts, with Labour cutting through with certain demographics and the Lib Dems targeting others. Since the interests of those groups are not often aligned, the Conservatives will hopefully be frozen between them, unable to win either. Secondly, the constant barrage of lawbreaking by Conservative MPs is depriving the Government of the ability to do anything. They are forced to play to the base with ridiculous, inhumane, and broadly unpopular policies like the deportation of refugees to Rwanda just to keep Johnson in office. That is not a way to win an election, and even if Partygate ceases to be a major concern by the time of the next election, it will kneecap the Tory record. These scandals are a raging chip-pan fire spreading through the Conservative kitchen; even if they extinguish it by 2024, they won’t have got much cooking done in the meantime.
Now, both Labour and the Liberal Democrats must lean into this advantage. We should not engage in any kind of formal electoral pact. The reason that Labour candidates sometimes face a disadvantage in Lib-Dem facing Conservative seats is not because voters are confused, it’s because they don’t like the Labour Party. The Liberal Democrats need to tack to the right, relying on tactical voting to win left of centre support and poaching more voters from the Conservatives’ natural terrain. Those of us in the Labour Party, meanwhile, now need to begin to think about winning back seats we have not won in a long time. Our lead in cities now needs to be channelled out into the suburbs of Middle England, so we can take seats we haven’t won since 2005, 2001, or even earlier.
We cannot afford to be complacent. The last time a sitting government lost two seats on the same day was in 1991, just a few months before John Major led the Tories to a surprise victory. We are never just ‘one last heave’ away from victory. If we let up, even for moment, the country will conclude that we are not serious about holding office. They will bend their ear the attacks from the right-wing press or the Conservative Party, and the tantalising possibility of Labour Government will recede as suddenly as it emerged. In 1997, Roy Jenkins described Tony Blair’s task in delivering a Labour Government as “like a man carrying a priceless Ming vase across a highly polished floor.” Now Keir Starmer must carry the same Ming vase across an electoral obstacle course.
Further, we shouldn’t be satisfied with current projections that merely see us deprive the Conservatives of an overall majority or make Labour the largest party. We need a majority Labour Government, and we are still a very, very long way away from that.
However, despite my usually pessimistic baritone, success at last feels a possibility. In the short run, there remain very substantial threats both to Boris Johnson and his party. He faces the Privileges Committee in the House of Commons as well as a series of hostile contenders for the 1992 Committee of back bench Conservatives. Each of these has a chance of removing Johnson but will certainly absorb more oxygen so he cannot deliver anything for the people who elected him. After this, he faces a difficult strategic dilemma, hedged in between the Liberal Democrats and Labour.
The victory in Wakefield shows a very real turning point for the Labour Party. As well as giving the city the representation it deserves in Parliament, it indicates the turning of the tide for the Labour Party. Where Batley and Spen marked the very end of the internal wounds we suffered before, during, and after the General Election in 2019, Wakefield marks the beginning of a new chapter. We are now on the road to a Labour Government, with Keir Starmer evicting Boris Johnson from Number 10. Let’s not drop that Ming vase.
Matt is the Vice-Chair of the Economy and Finance Network. He is a recent graduate in Economics, soon to begin postgraduate study. He’s from Merseyside, Labour’s true heartland, and writes frequently on a range of economic and political issues.
His interests in Economics focus on microeconomic theory and Public Policy, and his politics are characterised by a near-pathological obsession with returning Labour to government. He tweets at @matthewoulton.