On paper, the reading of last Thursday’s by-election results was straightforward enough. While the results were an even 3-3 among the Conservatives, Labour, and Liberal Democrats, the reality spelled trouble for the Conservatives and real promise for Labour. With an average of an 11% swing to Labour, Friday should have been a day of jubilation for the Party, but despite Starmer himself saying the Party had “every reason to be confident”, the positivity was lacking in his wider response. The Conservatives, meanwhile, moved on quickly, pivoting to major housing policy announcements.
So, what went wrong for Labour, and does it matter? And how much can the Conservatives capitalise on this moment?
Portland’s Senior Consultant Leena El-Refaey and Consultant Connor Whittam explore Labour’s reaction to the by-election results, what it means for party unity, future policies, and next year’s general election campaign.
You win some, ULEZ some
Rather than focusing on the historic win in Selby and Ainsty, Labour turned its attention to the narrow defeat to the Conservatives in Uxbridge. Despite closing the majority in the traditionally safe Conservative seat from 7,000 to 495, a failure in expectation management meant that anything other than a resounding victory could be framed as a setback.
And with Starmer providing no challenge to the Conservative line that Labour Mayor of London Sadiq Khan’s ULEZ expansion cost Labour the seat, attention is turned once again to internal party fighting and the factionalism that Starmer tries so hard to keep a lid on. All of which played out further at the National Policy Forum (NPF) over the weekend.
The NPF, Labour’s centralised vehicle to agree policy direction between its many differing and competing stakeholders (all explained in Portland’s guide to the Party How Labour Works), represented an opportunity for Starmer to maintain Party discipline and control over policy direction. Instead, he found himself fighting on two fronts: on ULEZ he used the meeting to urge Khan to “reflect” on the ULEZ expansion, arguing that the Party is doing “something very wrong” when a policy “ends up on each and every Tory leaflet”. Those close to the Mayor and Labour insiders have privately expressed concern over such a combative public approach, particularly as some at City Hall remain unconvinced that a defeat so narrow can be attributed to one subject matter. Separately, we also saw the pressure created by continued fiscal restraint and cold electoral focus placed on those with a desire to see immediate and radical shifts in policy, leading to public protests by Unite and grumblings from many across the Party.
It’s not easy being green
Another question to come out of Uxbridge is whether this marks a change in direction for environmental policy for both Labour and the Conservatives.
Both parties are reflecting on the sense of environmentalism being an issue that doesn’t inspire voters – or, indeed, could turn them against a party altogether. According to polling conducted by Portland earlier this year, as part of Portland’s Starmer’s Britain essay series, just 19% of voters thought the environment was a top 3 issue in the country.
A commitment to the environment through the creation of a “fairer, greener future” has been central to Labour’s positioning. However, as seen in the Party’s postponement of the £28 billion green investment pledge, those close to the Party leadership have continued to prioritise fiscal restraint and the economy ahead of green policies. This feeling has only been strengthened by the results in Uxbridge, where the simple yet effective narrative that ULEZ was a tax on working people during a cost-of-living crisis quickly took hold.
So far, Shadow Climate Secretary Ed Miliband has been a successful champion of the green agenda in the Labour Party, but it seems that those who have felt that Labour placed an over-emphasis on the environment are utilising this moment to make their point. Despite an understanding within the Party that fiscal prudence needs to be a priority, what appears to be Labour’s willingness to abandon well-established policy positions after one narrow by-election defeat is leading some to call Labour’s strategy and inherent electoral confidence into question.
All going to plan
While Labour navigates internal Party tensions, the Conservatives are – quite remarkably – able to swiftly move on.
Although internally the Conservatives are worried about what last week’s results mean for next year’s General Election, Labour’s knee-jerk reaction to Conservative attack lines has been seen as a small victory for Party strategists. The Conservatives are using this opportunity to further distance themselves from Labour and pause to re-evaluate their own approach to the environment in the context of cost-of-living.
Whilst there have been reports suggesting that the Prime Minister is considering dropping the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars in 2030 or the commitment to phase out gas boilers by 2035, it is more likely that deadlines could be lengthened. And more locally, as other councils across UK are considering similar ULEZ initiatives – including Newcastle, Manchester, and Sheffield – campaigners on both sides of the debate are likely to use the experience of Uxbridge as a guide, or indeed, a warning.
The road ahead
Whilst the Prime Minister avoided Harold Wilson’s fate of losing three by-elections in one day, he does appear to be heeding Wilson’s claim that “a week is a long time in politics”. The Conservatives swiftly moved on from the by-elections to pivot towards their key announcements over the weekend on women’s health issues and housing, whilst Labour inadvertently revealed not only a shaken confidence, but also that factionalism is alive and well.
Whilst it appears that one narrow by-election result could determine the fate of future environmental policies, this could prove to be a risky strategy and one that fades away once the dust settles. Despite short term concerns, such as high inflation, currently taking voter precedence, the environment remains a priority for the public. YouGov polling this week found that 71% of the public support Net Zero commitments, with only 16% in opposition.
A week is indeed a long time in politics, and with an election over a year away there is all to play for. Last week’s by-election results will soon be forgotten, but reactions from both political parties could shape the course of the next General Election strategy and future policies for years to come.