This article first appeared at betting.betfair.com on 30th November 2021
Last week, I argued that Boris Johnson’s days as Tory leader and Prime Minister were numbered, and doubted he would last until 2024. A bad result on Thursday in the Old Bexley and Sidcup By-Election could well bring the date forward.
Labour chasing unlikely, historic upset
Defeat in this Kent constituency, historically, would have been unimaginable and the signals from Betfair markets do regard it as highly unlikely. At present, the Conservatives can be backed at [1.1] and are rated equivalent to a 90% chance. Labour are the only realistic danger, at [10.0].
Were Labour to pull it off, it would rank as one of the biggest upsets in UK political history. The Tories won by an enormous 41% margin here in 2019 and fell short of a 19,000 majority by just 48 votes. Whilst the seat was strongly pro-Brexit, favouring Leave by a 25% margin, that result wasn’t an outlier driven by that specific issue. Even at the very close 2017 General Election, the Tories won by 32%.
Avoid Chesham and Amersham comparisons
By-election dynamics are, of course, very different. Earlier this year, we saw the Liberal Democrats produce an incredible swing to take a seat where the Conservatives had never received less than 50% of the vote. Be wary, however, of drawing too many comparisons with Chesham and Amersham, despite both being part of the London commuter belt.
A really useful guide to the electorate in each constituency can be found in the indices at Electoral Calculus, which measure the cultural divisions that are defining political realignment across the Western world. They apply three indicators – Economic, National and Social. For a detailed explanation, read here.
Both of these electorates rank high on the right-wing economic scale – Chesham and Amersham is 36th, Old Bexley and Sidcup 45th, among the 650 constituencies. However on the ‘National’ scale, their rankings are respectively 420nd and 79th. For ‘Social’, 379th and 117th.
In short, while both economically conservative, they are miles apart on the ‘National’ and ‘Social’ issues that dominate UK politics nowadays – immigration, Brexit and generally culture wars. It makes sense that the Lib Dems could profit in the former seat, especially armed with local issues such as unpopular housebuilding.
Labour unlikely to gain many Tory protest votes
In contrast, Labour are the sworn enemy of Tory voters – regarded a threat to their economic interests. It would take an extreme scenario for Labour to prosper among them. Even at their peak under Tony Blair, Labour lost by 7% in Old Bexley and Sidcup.
Never underestimate the difference between Labour and Lib Dems being the opposition. The Lib Dems served alongside the Tories in an economically right-wing coalition. Tory voters are much less likely to be concerned about their agenda and feel free to register a mid-term protest against the government over various issues. This is the nature of by-elections and explain why the third party has performed historically well in them.
There is a theory that Labour will flood the area with activists, given the close proximity to London. I simply can’t see how that would cut through their fundamental weaknesses. Sure, they have started leading in some national polls, but that is only on a small swing.
This focus group illuminates the real state of play in my view. No doubt, Boris Johnson’s personal ratings and credibility are in crisis. This is precisely why I’m backing an early exit. Heading into a general election with Johnson at the helm would be a major risk for the Tories, that they need not take.
The focus group also reinforces the view from polls, that Starmer hasn’t cut through with voters. There is still time to do so, and he could well become PM in a hung parliament after the next election, but there is nothing to suggest that Labour are ready to become the beneficiary of a defection from core Tory voters.