Friday, 2 December 2022

Portending Tory Doom

With news about Labour's by-election triumph in Chester over night, Keir Starmer's office began the day with a spring in their step. Labour increased its majority to over 11,000 - building on the healthy numbers achieved in 2017 and 2019. The Tories, however, plunged to their worst result since 1880 (not since 1832, as journalists incapable of using Wikipedia have claimed) with just over a fifth of the vote. It was always unlikely the Tories were going to bounce back and take a Labour-held seat, what with politics being what it is, but does the margin of victory tell us much?

A few brief points. Again, as we've seen with recent local by-election results, some comrades on social media have allowed their dislike of Starmer get in the way of clear thinking. First, it is a good result. 60.8% is Labour's best result in Chester, and the highest vote polled by any winning party since 1959. Second, while some pretend the low turnout - 40% - is a marker for the disdain most people hold the parties in, this is standard fare for a parliamentary by-election. No by-election on mainland Britain has exceeded the turnout of the preceding general election since 1982. Yes, I don't like it either but when Jeremy Corbyn was leader by-elections more often than not plunged below Chester's turnout. There isn't much enthusiasm for Starmer, but there's no point pretending the collapse of the Tories isn't allowing Labour to weigh the vote in places.

Also keen to talk down the vote is, bizarrely, centrist pollster of choice Peter Kellner. After going on about how the swing away from the Tories in the by-election, which was just shy of 14 points, would never be repeated uniformly across the country's constituencies because circumstances aren't the same everywhere, he then goes on to complain that Labour are going to have to do better if it wants a thumping majority. He digs out a table to show how by-election swings aren't necessarily repeated in the same seat at general elections. Okay, but what's the point? Puffing his cheeks out, he recalls the Corby by-election from 2012 which Labour won handily, and then the seat returned to the Tory fold three years later. His conclusion is Labour needs to do better than that in future by-elections to have the next contest in the bag. Yes, if your sole guide is the numbers and you ignore the politics. Complete statistical sophistry.

Henry Hill for ConHome produces a much better analysis. He rightly argues that what was an extreme marginal seat just seven years ago has flipped in that time to a safe Labour seat. Actually, when Labour got a majority of 9,000 in 2017 that transformation was much quicker than Hill supposes. He surveys a bunch of other recent marginals in 2010 that even in 2019 had become rock solid Labour seats. And that leaves him worrying. How many more swing seats are set not just to fall Labour's way, but are going to fall hard. The one consolation for the Tories is despite the hype and the duff polling from Matt Goodwin's People Polling outfit, Reform only managed to increase their by-election support by a fraction of a percentage and finished sixth behind the Greens.

As argued many times here, the Tory decline was going to begin biting in the 2020s as the Tories' electoral coalition entered long-term decline and could not renew itself. Liz Truss, in her infinite wisdom, accelerated the process and Rishi Sunak, and any other Tory for that matter, haven't got a clue about turning the situation around. So they're not even bothering. There is then little room for doubt. The Chester result chimes with national polling and the mood of the country. The doom is upon the Tories, and there's no escaping the cataclysm coming for them.

Image Credit


The Laughing Lemon said...

I know this sounds a little frivolous, but the effect on the constituent's minds of the closure of Brown's of Chester might have had an effect. It was quite an iconic store, right, smack-bang in the high street next door to the Grosvenor Hotel and when the owner, Debenhams, closed it, it became a missing tooth in the face of the high street. It's been boarded up ever since. A similar thing has happened in Chelmsford and probably a few other County towns/cities around the country. People do take pride in their high street, whether hubris or not, and it does set the tone of the town (Basildon hasn't been the same since M&S closed), and the measure of the local (and national) economy.

Old Trot said...

Yep the Tories will lose the next General Election, after essentially destroying local government, the police service, the prison service, the NHS as a free at the point of need universal service, filling our rivers and sea shores with shit, in only 12 short years of outright banditry . And going forward - under an extremely 'centrist', flag-shagging, budget balancing, Pro NATO, Womanhood-denying, Starmer-led Labour government ? Continuing utter disaster for the poorest and most vulnerable in our society.

This will be the most right wing Labour government ever, with a tiny, utterly beaten Left in both the the membership and Parliament. The nationwide riots may not come yet, but they will come under a austerity enforcing Labour government. And then the Far Right will rise - as it has across Europe and the USA on the back of the utter failure of the remnants of social democracy. Nothing really worth gloating about , Phil. We are in such deep doo doo as a country, and particularly as a political Left alternative to the ever more savage neoliberal status quo of 'disaster capitalism'.

Blissex said...

«set the tone of the town (Basildon hasn't been the same since M&S closed),»

To be pedantic but useful, that's the other way round: M&S closed *because* Basildon hasn't been the same. Shops from ASDA to Waitrose target areas that fit with their affordability level, and when an M&S or Waitrose closes that's a clear signal of something that has been going for a while.

Also those who oppose Waitrose/M&S/... closures often do so not because of hubris and pride in their high street, but because of property valuations: the closure of a M&s signals also a waning property market, and contributes to it, because few "Middle England" affluent property buyers want to be far away from their favourite shops (Hunt, Mandelson, Umunna: New New “Labour would only win if the party championed aspirational voters who shop at John Lewis and Waitrose”).

IIRC smart property speculators look not just at "good schools" or the ratio between job growth and property construction, or at ASDA vs. M&S proximity, but also at the ratio of net opening cafes vs. chippie/kebab shops in an area (renters need to work so many hours or several jobs that often it is cheaper for them to get a "meal" ready from the chippie/kebab place than to cook, and many low paid renters in doss houses don't have access to a fridge or kitchen anyhow).

David Lindsay said...

That the Opposition had held onto a seat with an increased majority midterm would not be a story even under normal circumstances. At both of the General Elections when the Labour Party was led by Jeremy Corbyn, it did better at the City of Chester than it did yesterday. Even in 2019, it did better by 9773. In 2017, the difference was a whopping 14,714, only 2595 fewer than its total vote at this by-election. There are still two years to go until the next General Election. We are heading for a hung Parliament.

Anonymous said...

Wait a minute. This seat flipped from a solid marginal to a labour 9000 majority in 2017? Was there an election that year? Because the media and political establishment never mention it.

Daniel Gordon said...

Many thanks for your sharp analysis Phil. As a Chester resident (long time reader of your blog but first time commenter), I can add some local context on what might be called The Strange Death Of Tory Chester:
1) The Conservatives barely tried. Back in 2015, the Tories threw everything at defending City of Chester: practically every day, I was getting personalised letters from David Cameron, and that poster of Ed Miliband in Alex Salmond's pocket was prominently displayed on a billboard next to the station. By complete contrast, since 2017 the Tories seem to have given up Chester as a lost cause. In this by-election I literally did not see a single Conservative poster anywhere in the city; selecting a candidate from Congleton, 30 miles away, was dispatching her on a kamikaze mission.
2) Labour are really well organised here. Sam Dixon is also well known as the former leader of Cheshire West & Chester Council, which has made some prominent improvements like the Storyhouse arts centre, and the bustling indoor market full of independent traders, which only opened on 8 November - just before the by-election.
3) The so-called 'Merseyrail effect' (of Labour hegemony spreading outwards from Liverpool even to the wealthier, historically Tory, fringes of its sub-region - cf Wirral West, Sefton Central etc).
4) The effects of Brexit in undermining the Tories' former voter coalition. Unlike the rest of Cheshire, City of Chester voted 57% Remain, and it's no coincidence that after 2016 the Labour majority went through the roof here. The clue's in the name of the constituency: Chester may be a small city, but a city nevertheless, an international European city for 2000 years, containing both prosperity and poverty. Today, Chester increasingly shares the values of urban Britain: it definitely feels a less small-c conservative place than it did when I first moved here nearly 20 years ago. I'm a Green Party member, and in 2017 - as we'd already done locally in 2015, against national party policy - we didn't stand a candidate, as we didn't want to help the Tories win what was then an ultra-marginal. But this turned out to have been unnecessary: I was astounded when Labour won by 10,000 votes. Chester isn't an obvious hotbed of Corbynism, though probably has more than its fair share of armchair middle-class socialists such as myself; it was described by the Guardian a few years back, not entirely inaccurately, as 'quite a 'woke' city'. But 2017 was also in large part a personal vote for Chris Matheson, who was anti-Corbyn, and partly a pro-European vote against May's 'citizens of nowhere' xenophobia.
5) I was worried that Sunak might get a bounce here compared to Johnson or Truss, as Cestrians have sometimes had a soft spot for superficially 'moderate' Tories: the last Tory leaders to win Chester were Major in 1992 and Cameron in 2010. But Sunak has had no such bounce, even in the kind of place where he ought to have done.
For some of the above reasons, Chester is not that representative of general election battleground seats, so the result probably overstates Labour's national position. But for somewhere that was Tory-dominated for a long, long time to lose 15,000 Tory votes between 2019 and 2022 does tell us something. Or for a longer-term picture, compare Liz Wardlaw's 22% of the vote with the last Chester by-election under a Tory government in 1956, when they could still get 52%, even in the midst of the Suez crisis.
So I hope that Phil turns out to be right, and that we are in the end game for the Tories, but we can't be sure yet. The bad news is that, due to drastic boundary changes dividing the city along the Dee, it's also the end game for City of Chester!