In the race to be the next British government, we are just over a year away from a General Election and all the polls are giving the Labour Party a healthy lead. However, analysis by polling expert Mark Pack shows that the race may not be over yet. Since 2019 there have been 16 by-elections. In these, only 7 seats have changed hands. 

Of those that have changed hands Labour has lost one to the Conservatives (back in 2021 in Hartlepool), two have gone from Conservative to Labour (Wakefield in June 2022 and Ashby and Selby last week). But the biggest swing in fortunes has been for the Lib Dems who have taken 4 seats off the Conservatives.

Mark Pack has analysed the by-elections since 2019, and the figures do not make particularly good reading for Labour. The Tories have lost 14.3% of their vote, amounting to 219,238 votes. The Lib Dems have gained 10% since 2019, amounting to 16,311 votes. But Labour, the party that everybody seems to think will be the next government, has managed to lose, against possibly the worst UK government in living memory, 2.5% of its votes, a fairly massive 113,111 votes. The Greens are also gaining voters with a 4% increase in vote share, but this was achieved whilst losing nearly 4,000 voters.

What does this tell us? First, the obvious; the Conservative vote is collapsing and, in all honesty, there is little they can do short of engineering an economic miracle that is likely to reverse that decline. The Conservatives are in much the same position now that they were in 1996 ahead of the Blair ‘New Labour’ victory. Conservatives, then, were not shifting their allegiance to Labour, they were simply not voting for their own preferred party. Whilst a handful of Tories may have switched, what was noticeable in 1997 is that the Conservatives lost almost 4.5 million voters. Whilst Labour gained 2 million votes in 1997, the majority of lost Tory votes went nowhere. In fact, those Tory voters did not return until 2017. Labour meanwhile lost the 2 million additional votes in 2001 and did not regain them until 2017 under Jeremy Corbyn. 

But, if Labour now are failing to inspire, then why are they so far ahead in the polls, and, if as seems equally true, the Lib Dems are gaining in the race, why can’t they get ahead?

In 2019 the Tories got more votes than Labour had achieved in 1997. But Labour was not as far behind as the Tories had been in 1997 meaning that, as Tory voters stay at home, Labour does not have to gain voters in order to end up in front. It is, to use the race analogy, what happens if the leader drops out of the race? You don’t have to run faster to win, you simply have to keep your pace. Especially when the third placed person is so far behind you. The Tories have not pulled out of the race, but they look as though they are going to limp across the finish line.

The Lib Dems were on 3.6 million votes in 2019 (2 million lower than they managed in 1997 incidentally) so they would need to pick up an additional 6.4 million votes in order to challenge Labour. That would be entirely unprecedented. 

What we are seeing is not a fair race, and this has nothing to do with PR incidentally, but rather Labour and the Tories racing a 100 metre sprint and the Lib Dems and Greens running a marathon. Labour are winning only because they started out so far ahead, and the Tories have spent the past 3 years breaking their own legs!

There is still a long way to go, even in the 100 metre sprint, so it is not yet a foregone conclusion. What we are seeing is not a wave of enthusiasm for Labour. What we are seeing is the two main parties both losing voters but the parties bringing up the rear being so far behind that they are unable to capitalise on these losses. Based on the past we can probably expect the Conservatives to end up with 8-9 million votes and Labour with 9-10 million votes. The polls may be right and Labour is heading for a landslide, but if I were you I wouldn’t bet your house on it just yet. 

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