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Take everything you read about the by-elections with a pinch of salt

Should he be worried about Uxbridge? Credit: Getty

July 20, 2023 - 7:30am

On Friday morning, the media will be full of commentators concluding that the Conservative Party is doomed to lose the next election because of the by-election results. Or, alternatively, it will be full of people concluding that the Conservatives stand a chance of victory after all. Do not pay either any attention.

The by-election results will tell us a lot about what the voters in Uxbridge, Selby and Somerton think of the Government. Where it is set to be less useful is in revealing the national political mood. 

If the swing in those three constituencies is similar to the swing in the national opinion polls, then it will tell us practically nothing we didn’t already know. If that isn’t the result, then that still doesn’t tell us much new about wider public opinion either, because by-elections are very strange beasts.

To be clear, they are not mini-general elections. Normally a major factor in how people vote at general elections is the fact they are picking a government and a prime minister. The voters this Thursday know that whoever they vote for, and whoever wins, they’ll still have a Tory government the next morning. That provides an opportunity for a protest vote, or to pay more attention than usual to the local candidate.

Voters in the seats being contested on Thursday will have been besieged by prospective candidates and accompanying leaflets, telling them which party is best placed to kick out the Government, which is one of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats often overperform in by-elections.

Meanwhile, there’s no guarantee that these seats bear any similarity to the country as a whole. If the Conservatives do better in, for example, Uxbridge, it could be due to specific local issues that don’t matter elsewhere. This is by no means unlikely — the Uxbridge campaign has been dominated by London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s Ulez scheme, due to be expanded to cover the constituency next month. A smaller swing there may imply something about support for that particular issue, but will divulge little about the country away from outer London.

Yet just because the by-election results don’t tell us much about the national political mood, it doesn’t mean they aren’t still important. Their significance simply stems more from their impact. If the Conservatives lose all three votes, it will further entrench the perception of a party doomed to defeat, while further demoralising Tory MPs. It would also make Sir Keir Starmer look more like a leader on the path to victory. If the Conservatives manage to save those seats, suddenly the media narrative will switch to stories about Rishi Sunak turning it around, about how they may just win after all.

All those articles on Friday morning might tell you a great deal about the political narrative as we head into the summer. But broader public opinion? Not so much.


Anthony Wells is Director of YouGov’s political and social opinion polling

anthonyjwells

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Steve White
Steve White
11 months ago

We are swimming in lies today about most everything significant…
Managing all the information someone gets, giving them the illusion of freedom, encouraging them to think and say and do one thing, or not think or say or do another and then calling that democracy and freedom is in some ways worse than an open dictatorship. At least with the open dictatorship, you don’t get the mind and will destroying effect.
I am reminded of the Lord of the Rings, and Denethor. Sauron used this very technique when Denethor looked into the Palantir, and what we found in the end was that Denethor was driven mad, became heartless and callous, even to his own son. He was once a good man, who was destroyed from the inside out by being shown only what Sauron wanted him to see, being fed a steady diet of lies.
The same thing with King of Rohan. He had his Grima Wormtongue, it turned him into a powerless repeater of the lies, and an evil actor over his peoples decline.

Last edited 11 months ago by Steve White
Luke Piggott
Luke Piggott
11 months ago
Reply to  Steve White

Always love a Tolkien reference so thank you for that!

I quite agree, the continual mind games and manipulation of narratives past and present is exhausting. Although it may still be arguably better than a public beheading or to disappear in to the arms of the secret police.

Luke Piggott
Luke Piggott
11 months ago
Reply to  Steve White

Always love a Tolkien reference so thank you for that!

I quite agree, the continual mind games and manipulation of narratives past and present is exhausting. Although it may still be arguably better than a public beheading or to disappear in to the arms of the secret police.

Steve White
Steve White
11 months ago

We are swimming in lies today about most everything significant…
Managing all the information someone gets, giving them the illusion of freedom, encouraging them to think and say and do one thing, or not think or say or do another and then calling that democracy and freedom is in some ways worse than an open dictatorship. At least with the open dictatorship, you don’t get the mind and will destroying effect.
I am reminded of the Lord of the Rings, and Denethor. Sauron used this very technique when Denethor looked into the Palantir, and what we found in the end was that Denethor was driven mad, became heartless and callous, even to his own son. He was once a good man, who was destroyed from the inside out by being shown only what Sauron wanted him to see, being fed a steady diet of lies.
The same thing with King of Rohan. He had his Grima Wormtongue, it turned him into a powerless repeater of the lies, and an evil actor over his peoples decline.

Last edited 11 months ago by Steve White
AC Harper
AC Harper
11 months ago

If I lived in Uxbridge I might vote for Howling Hope, Official Monster Raving Loony Party.
Unless there was an Unofficial Monster Raving Loony Party.

AC Harper
AC Harper
11 months ago

If I lived in Uxbridge I might vote for Howling Hope, Official Monster Raving Loony Party.
Unless there was an Unofficial Monster Raving Loony Party.

Richard Abbot
Richard Abbot
11 months ago

The by-election will be used – not interpreted, but used – to push the pre-agreed media line. It’s all so tiresome. Maybe Curtis Yarvin was right after all.

j watson
j watson
11 months ago
Reply to  Richard Abbot

Remember the need for the by elections was a strategy of Bojo supporters to undermine Sunak. The media didn’t decide there should be by-elections.

j watson
j watson
11 months ago
Reply to  Richard Abbot

Remember the need for the by elections was a strategy of Bojo supporters to undermine Sunak. The media didn’t decide there should be by-elections.

Richard Abbot
Richard Abbot
11 months ago

The by-election will be used – not interpreted, but used – to push the pre-agreed media line. It’s all so tiresome. Maybe Curtis Yarvin was right after all.

Andrew Buckley
Andrew Buckley
11 months ago

I predict the Liberal Democrats will start preparing for Government.

Jitwar Singh
Jitwar Singh
11 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Buckley

How funny was it that Jo ‘i’m the next PM’ Swinson lost her seat in 2019?

odd taff
odd taff
11 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Buckley

The LibDems are very much like millennials. The original lot not those born in the 2,000s. The ones who believed in the second coming. They’re still waiting.

Jitwar Singh
Jitwar Singh
11 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Buckley

How funny was it that Jo ‘i’m the next PM’ Swinson lost her seat in 2019?

odd taff
odd taff
11 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Buckley

The LibDems are very much like millennials. The original lot not those born in the 2,000s. The ones who believed in the second coming. They’re still waiting.

Andrew Buckley
Andrew Buckley
11 months ago

I predict the Liberal Democrats will start preparing for Government.

N Satori
N Satori
11 months ago

It is a pity that Freddie Sayers does not give us the benefit of his inside knowledge of how opinion polls are produced. They have become so ubiquitous and influential that we need to know more about the mechanism behind the latest “revealing new poll” so eagerly accepted by columnists and broadcasters hungry for content and activists in need of approval for their cause.

N Satori
N Satori
11 months ago

It is a pity that Freddie Sayers does not give us the benefit of his inside knowledge of how opinion polls are produced. They have become so ubiquitous and influential that we need to know more about the mechanism behind the latest “revealing new poll” so eagerly accepted by columnists and broadcasters hungry for content and activists in need of approval for their cause.