The outcome doesn't suggest a 1997-style wipeout
Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives have faced their first electoral test since Boris Johnson’s resignation tipped them into months of electoral chaos. It did not go well. Although Labour was always expected to win the City of Chester by-election, the margin of victory points towards deep trouble for the Conservatives, and how far they have drifted from their electorate.
Chester is by no means a historic Labour stronghold. The pretty, affluent city was solidly Tory from 1910 until 1997, and since then has been a swing seat. The Tories took it back from Labour in 2010, before losing by just 93 votes in 2015. Since then, it was one of the losers of the Tory realignment, with the Labour majority rising to over six thousand in 2019. Yet last night was a cake-walk for Labour.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
With all the usual caveats of by-election weirdness and lower-than-usual turnout, the Tories were hurt in Chester. The Labour majority now sits at over ten thousand, taking 61% of the vote share, with a 14% swing. The Lib Dems also gained against the Conservatives. On every measure, it’s the Tories’ worst performance in the city since the Great Reform Act. If matched across the country, Labour would form a government.
The only glimmer of hope for Sunak is that this by election swing is not as bad as those suffered in the latter days of John Major. The hysterical polls that suggested a total wipe-out of the Tories under Truss may have been overstated. When people get to the ballot box, they are perhaps a little more forgiving. These numbers point to a 1964-style result, rather than a 1997 one. Equally, Reform had little impact in taking votes from the Tory right.
It is however small comfort. The party’s failure last night shows it is losing ground in areas where it should have a fighting chance. It is a seat the party held within the last decade, in a relatively wealthy enclave. Samantha Dixon is only Chester’s third ever Labour MP. That it should tilt so far towards Labour indicates the Conservatives are losing more and more of what were once core voters.
The Conservative majority in 2019 was delivered by deftly bringing together a coalition of long-standing Tory voters with new converts run over by Brexit and Johnson. The danger now is that both sides of that equation might desert them. The result in Chester certainly indicates the former is going elsewhere or staying at home, no longer enthusiastic about the Tories as they were under Cameron, or as scared of Labour as they were under Corbyn. Polling suggests the latter isn’t staying around either.
Chester confirms that the Tories are on course for a defeat at the next election. The party has 18 months to mitigate this. The headwinds are against them, with the cost-of-living crisis still to bite fully. If they keep scandal-free and competent, they might just hold together a good portion of their voters and deliver a bad, but not eviscerating result, like in Chester last night. If not, a full blowout beckons.