Rachel Iboraii celebrates the Tories’ latest by-election losses and looks at what this tells us about the prospects for the upcomin general election.

Looking for a new Tory strategy… Picture by Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street

Rishi Sunak lurches from one crisis to another. Last Thursday the Office for National Statistics announced that Britain had entered a recession. The same day, the Tories were trounced in two by-elections.

Kingswood and Wellingborough had been previous Tory strongholds that Labour won comfortably. Kingswood saw a swing of 16.4% and Wellingborough saw a swing of 28.5% – the worst fall in the Tory share of the vote ever.  If these voting patterns continue into the next election, Labour is on track to win with a large majority.

The massive swing in Wellingborough was partly shaped by local factors. Helen Harrison, the Conservative candidate, is the partner of Peter Bone, the former MP whose expulsion from parliament for various allegations including bullying and sexual harassment. triggered the election. Her selection was allegedly the price for Bone not standing as an independent, which highlights a major issue for Rishi Sunak – members of the Tory Party are so right-wing and out of touch that they could not put aside their factional point scoring for the good of the party and select a more credible candidate. Kingswood was less charged, not least because the constituency will be abolished under boundary changes at the next election, but it was still a striking defeat for the Tories.

The launch of ‘Popular Conservatives’ with its focus on immigration, culture wars and tax cuts will be a pole of attraction for right-wing Tory members, further exacerbating the issue of factionalism. The Tories are meant to be the party of business, however right-wing populist politics such as Liz Truss’s economic plan or Brexit destabilise the economy, which means that the Tories can’t be a reliable representative of big business in parliament. The results will only further deepen the Tories’ existential crisis.

The Tories are now competing for the right-wing, racist, populist part of the electorate. The Reform Party, the successor of the Brexit Party, came third in both constituencies. Their main slogan is ‘Let’s Make Britain Great’ an obvious nod to Trump’s slogan ‘Make America Great Again.’ Their campaign centred on lower taxes, net zero immigration, zero waiting lists and cheaper energy. They have committed to stand in every seat at the general election, and Jacob Rees-Mogg says they are a bigger threat to the Tories than the Labour Party. The Lib Dems were squeezed by the Reform Party and lost their deposits in both elections. Opinion polls show that this is likely to be a national phenomenon.

Keir Starmer has argued that the by-election victories show that people are ready for a change and prepared to give Labour a change. Of course, people are ready for a change – we’ve had a year of unprecedented inflation and an associated cost of living crisis, and after years of austerity, Britain’s infrastructure is collapsing. But the Labour leadership will claim that the election results show that the electorate now trusts Labour since it has become ‘respectable’ by promising fiscal responsibility, dropping environmental reforms, embracing anti-immigrant rhetoric and supporting Israel.

The turnout in both constituencies was low, showing that the Labour wins weren’t the result of former Tory voters turning to Labour, but rather them staying at home. Labour will almost certainly win the general election, but without much popular enthusiasm. If people are voting for change, they will want change. However, Labour is simply promising ‘business as usual’, which means that Starmer could quickly become unpopular if he can’t address the issues that people are facing.

The Corbyn movement showed that there was a large core of people who were desperate to see radical change. Since his removal, and the dissipation of the movement around him, parliamentary politics promises little and delivers even less. We need to show that change doesn’t just come from elections but can come through collective action such as strikes and social movements.

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