There have certainly been more exciting by-elections than City of Chester 2022. A campaign in a safe Labour seat, held at what Conservatives must pray is a nadir in their own party’s fortunes, was only likely to go one way.
And so it did: Samantha Dixon has been returned to Parliament with a handsomely increased majority of almost 11,000, up from just 6,164 in 2019, and a swing of almost 14 points from the Tories.
Turnout was down some 30 points on the general but, at over 40 per cent, is a lot better than it might have been; and whilst Labour’s total is almost 10,000 votes lower than in 2019, their share of the vote is well up, at 61.2 per cent.
In any case the Conservatives misplaced some 14,000 voters themselves. Liz Wardlaw, the candidate, tried to focus the campaign on being a local voice – but that just allowed Labour to make hay of the fact she didn’t live in the constituency. Given the unhappy trend towards hyper-local MPs, that probably told.
According to Ben Walker of Britain Elects, the result was the “worst result for the Conservatives in Chester since 1832”.
There is nothing in the headline numbers to comfort the right. Reform UK might be starting to take a slice out of the Conservative vote in national polling, but last night they took fewer than 800 votes – perhaps a sign that they are still struggling to find the right line of attack.
Perhaps there’s an argument to be made that this result should not, in itself, cost CCHQ too much sleep. After all, a seat which returned a Labour majority of over 6,000 during the Tory landslide of 2019 was surely not likely to be in play anyway. Nobody wants to be going backwards anywhere, but better to do so in places the other side are already well ahead.
But take a longer view – and not too much longer, either – and results like City of Chester really do highlight how rapidly the Conservative map is shifting (or sinking). Because it was only in 2015 that this was one of the most marginal constituencies in the country. And before that, it was a Conservative seat!
In 2015, Labour led the Tories here by just 93 votes. In 2010, Stephen Mosley secured a Conservative majority of almost 2,600. Even way back in 2005, when the Tories still had a lot of rebuilding to do, they slashed the Labour majority to just 917. It’s now a safe seat.
Nor is it alone. City of Chester is part of a sort of political Atlantis: David Cameron’s Tory Britain, an archipelago of seats, competitive less than a decade ago but now deep underwater.
Curious political realignment stat:— Joxley (@Mr_John_Oxley) December 1, 2022
In 2015, three of the top ten marginals were Labour wins vs Tories. Each had a majority of less than 500. In 2019, those seats had Labour majorities of 6.1k, 10.5k, and 13.3k.
Consider the following seats the Conservatives missed out on in 2010, and by how much: Westminster North, 2,126; Tooting, 2,542; Birmingham Edgbaston, 1,247; even Birmingham Selly Oak, 3,482. If someone had told you in 2010 that a decade later, the Party would still be in power – and with a handsome majority – wouldn’t you have assumed that the road to it lay through seats such as this?
Yet come 2019 the Labour majorities in each stood at: 10,759, 14,307, 5,614, and 12,414. A small chink of light in Birmingham (where the Conservatives actually picked up Northfield in 2019), but none of those figures seem likely to get any smaller at the next election.
There’s an element of chicken-and-egg to trying to explain this. These seats might have moved away from the Tories as the latter abandoned the Cameroon project; on the other hand, if the Cameroons had been better at converting such seats into gains, they might not have been so abandoned.
But whatever the reason, it means that Labour have consolidated their hold on an archipelago of what were until recently marginal seats, even whilst performing fairly woefully overall. And it invites Tory MPs to ponder the question: which currently-competitive seats, looked back on from a general election in 2028, are in danger of making up the Party’s next Atlantis?