Labour leader Keir Starmer faces twin tests of the UK opposition party’s popularity, as voters go to the polls to fill two parliamentary seats that were last won comfortably by the ruling Conservatives.
(Bloomberg) — Labour leader Keir Starmer faces twin tests of the UK opposition party’s popularity, as voters go to the polls to fill two parliamentary seats that were last won comfortably by the ruling Conservatives.
Starmer is attempting to overturn big Tory majorities in different parts of England — Mid Bedfordshire, a collection of small towns and villages north of London, and Tamworth, a rural area in northwest England. Success in either would reinforce speculation that Labour is on track to return to power for the first time in 14 years in a general election expected sometime in 2024.
Both outcomes look far from clear, however, and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives are hoping to demonstrate they can halt Labour’s momentum. Starmer’s party has enjoyed a double-digit lead over the Tories in national opinion polls, and earlier this month won a key seat outside Glasgow from the Scottish National Party.
Winning both by-elections Thursday would send the message that Labour can “win anywhere,” said Joe Twyman, co-founder and director of public opinion consultancy Deltapoll. “To win two — even if they just scrape through — having turned around such enormous majorities, is the kind of thing that Tony Blair would have done up in the run-up to 1997.”
Starmer has long dismissed any comparisons to Blair, who won Labour a landslide victory after 18 years in opposition. Indeed, he needs around double the extra seats that Blair required to secure an outright majority.
The two sides are playing down expectations ahead of the elections. Starmer described winning Tamworth as a “tough ask” during a visit to the constituency last week while Sunak’s press secretary noted Wednesday that such midterm elections are often tough for the ruling party.
Both by-elections stem from controversial circumstances. In Tamworth, Chris Pincher stood down as a member of Parliament following allegations last year that he had groped two men. Boris Johnson’s efforts last year to defend Pincher, who was then a senior minister, prompted an exodus from the Cabinet and precipitated the premier’s resignation.
Pincher won Tamworth for the Tories with a majority of almost 20,000 in 2019, increasing the party’s vote share at every election since 2010. The seat has traditionally been a two-way fight between the Conservatives and Labour, and was held by Labour between 1997 and 2010.
The Conservatives’ effort to retain the seat were dealt a blow this week, after the party’s candidate, Andrew Cooper, was forced to defend a 2020 Facebook post in which he appeared to criticize the financial choices of out-of-work parents. Labour’s Sarah Edwards is challenging him for the seat.
The Mid Bedfordshire vote was sparked by the resignation of Johnson ally and ex-cabinet minister Nadine Dorries, who quit last month with a fierce rebuke of Sunak’s leadership. On paper, it should also be a safe Tory seat and has elected Conservative MPs continuously since 1931.
But local anger at both the Conservative government and former MPs have put both constituencies in play. In Mid Bedfordshire, the chance of a win by Conservative Festus Akinbusoye has been further clouded by Liberal Democrats candidate Emma Holland-Lindsay fighting a tough battle with Labour contender Alistair Strathern for anti-Conservative votes.
“If Labour win both by-elections comfortably on good votes that don’t just rely on low turnout, it is a very good indicator for them in the general election — not a final indicator — but a good indicator,” said Robert Hayward, an elections analyst and Conservative peer. “If they fail to win either, it would be a bad indicator for Labour, for Keir Starmer and for pollsters.”
–With assistance from Kitty Donaldson.
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