A bad night Rishi Sunak (Picture: Number 10/Flickr)

Rishi Sunak has suffered two devastating defeats in by-elections—and only narrowly avoided a third. It should be a spur to mobilise on the picket lines and streets to drive them out.

The Tories lost in Selby and Ainsty and Somerton and Frome—and barely clung on in Uxbridge after a recount—on Thursday. 

Labour beat the Tory candidate in Selby and Ainsty by 16,456 to 12,295 votes. The Tories had won the North Yorkshire seat with a majority of more than 20,000 at the general election in 2019.

The Liberal Democrats won in Somerton and Frome in the south west of England by 21,187 votes to the Tories’ 10,179 votes. The Tories had won a majority of over 19,000 in 2019. 

The Labour Party came fifth with 1,009—behind the Green Party on 3,944 and the right wing Reform UK party on 1,303. 

The Tories clung on in Uxbridge—Boris Johnson’s former constituency in west London—with a majority of just 495 votes compared to 7,210 in 2019. 

They were helped by Labour mayor Sadiq Khan’s plans to expand the Ultra Low Emissions Zone (Ulez) to outer London. Conservatives have mobilised right wing opposition to Ulez in the capital.

The elections expert, Professor John Curtice, said, “The Tories should not take too much comfort from it. If you accept the interpretation of the Conservative victor himself, Steve Tuckwell, he basically said this was entirely to do with the Ulez issue.”

And “he did not mention at all that the voters were being won over” by Sunak. “Even if you include what happened in that by-election, and you take the three of them together, the average drop in Conservative support is 21 points,” Curtice added. 

The by-election defeats reflect a deep-seated anger against the Tories as the cost of living crisis continues to hammer working class people’s living standards. 

For all the fanfare about inflation falling, it still persists at 10.7 percent using the most accurate RPI measure. And, on top of that, come revelations from the Covid inquiry which heard the final witnesses in its first stage on Thursday.

But Labour offers no alternative to the social crisis facing working class people. Starmer and shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves have made clear that they’ll stick to Tory austerity and privatisation. 

He doubled down on his decision not to scrap the two-child benefit cap at the beginning of the week. At an in-conversation event with Tony Blair, he said, “How are you going to get business to partner alongside you? And that’s why we’re having a row over tough choices.” 

“Yup,” smirked the superrich war criminal in response. And Starmer went on to say, “The next stage is where we’ve got to be even tougher.” 

At prime minister’s questions the day before the by-elections, Starmer wheeled out the “magic money tree”. He asked whether Sunak’s “uncosted spending” is “just the latest promise to fall” out of it. The “magic money tree” was one of former Tory prime minister Theresa May’s favourite lines against Jeremy Corbyn. 

It’s rooted in the nonsense idea that, as Labour’s shadow minister Lucy Powell claimed on Tuesday, “There just, frankly, is no money left.” 

There is plenty of wealth in Britain to give all workers inflation-busting pay rises, boost public services and the welfare state—and much more. It’s simply in the wrong hands. The top 250 richest people in Britain have amassed more than £710 billion, off the backs of ordinary people’s work.  

But Starmer is determined to show big business, bankers and billionaires that a Labour government will be no threat to their wealth and power. It will use the Tory win in Uxbridge to retreat further on action on climate change. 

The real hope lies with workers seizing on the Tory divisions as an opportunity to drive them all out. It’s been good to see junior and consultant doctors and rail workers on picket lines this week. 

But the union leaders’ general strategy of sporadic strikes—with long pauses in between—will not be enough to break the Tories and bosses. And, time and again, they’ve shown themselves too willing to settle for bad deals. The NEU education union is pushing a below-inflation deal of 6.5 percent in the face of grassroots opposition. 

The pull of Labourism—the idea that change comes through elected a Labour government, not workers’ struggles—will now grow. The pressure from union leaders will be to shut down struggles, not rock the boat and wait for a Labour government. 

So it will take a challenge against the union leaders to capitalise on the Tory crisis. 

Alongside a drive for austerity, the Tories will ramp up scapegoating. The Bibby Stockholm prison barge, which will house 500 refugees, arrived in Portland Harbour in Dorset on Tuesday. It is a propaganda tool designed to demonise refugees as dangerous, criminal 

It came just after the Tories pushed through parliament the Illegal Migration Bill, which stops refugees from claiming asylum if they arrive via the Channel.

The Tory scapegoating is boosting fascist, far right and racism forces on the streets. We can see the dangers in Llanelli where racist protests against refugees being housed in a hotel have gained support. It’s vital to mobilise anti-racist forces—like in Dorset where they’ve built up a side. 

The best response to the by-election results is to get onto the streets and onto the picket lines and make it a summer of resistance. Let’s build a bigger fightback against the Tories and all their vile policies, and the bosses and their profit-system. 

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