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View from the Street: Still need convincing of Labour’s electoral strength? Let the voters speak for themselves

Malcolm Robertson

Founding partner

Blackpool has enjoyed – or, alternatively, endured – a long association with UK politics.

For many years the town hosted autumn party conferences, sharing with Brighton and Bournemouth the economic spoils that came with a few thousand committed political activists and sundry other hangers on (people like me).

It seems politicians no longer like to be beside the seaside. These famous old resort towns have made way for the vibrant northern cities of Liverpool and Manchester and Birmingham in the Midlands.

In Scotland, the Eden Court theatre in Inverness – which hosted the Scottish National Party for many years – has lost out to Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow.

For us political analysts, Blackpool rocked back into our consciousness last week, as Labour overturned a 3,690 Conservative majority to capture the Blackpool South parliamentary seat with a 26% swing, the third largest in post-war by-election history.

Amid the noise of the English local election coverage – and Scotland changing its first minister again – it was easy to overlook the significance of this result and the trend emerging from other recent by-elections, leaving aside the anomaly of George Galloway’s return to the House of Commons.

It suggests that Labour’s core argument for political change – to follow 14 years of Conservatives in government at Westminster and 17 years of SNP rule in Holyrood – is something that voters across the country are finding increasingly compelling.

This is true despite the often comical denials of failure from those on the wrong end of these plebiscites, which only serve as a useful reminder of the contempt some politicians now have for the intelligence of voters.

In Scotland this week, the SNP missed what was probably its last chance to put meaningful change before the electorate.

In electing for a continuity leader in John Swinney, who last led the party between 2000 and 2004 and who was Nicola Sturgeon’s loyal deputy for many years, it has chosen stability over the renewal that might have been offered by his only credible challenger, and now deputy first minister, Kate Forbes.

In Politico’s poll of polls, which aggregates data from several credible polling sources, Labour is now tracking 20 points ahead of the Conservatives. A YouGov poll for The Times, published today, puts Labour a remarkable 30 points ahead.

There is a general assumption that Keir Starmer will be the UK’s prime minister before the end of the year, with so-called ‘Red Wall’ seats won by Boris Johnson in 2019 expected to go back to Labour. There is a parallel expectation that something similar will happen to the SNP in Scotland’s central belt.

But UK transport secretary Mark Harper has doubts. Last weekend, following a calamitous round of local and mayoral elections for his party, he boldly claimed the opinion polls are “not correct” and argued there is “everything to fight for”.

His boss Rishi Sunak even predicted a hung parliament and suggested deals might be done between Labour and the SNP.

However, as the pollsters will tell you, that is not an accurate interpretation of last week’s results, failing as it does to even consider Scotland, for example. In any event, Labour has increasing confidence in the reliability of its private data and the army of party activists who collect and analyse it.

We should all consider what’s happening in the real world – beyond the political bubbles, opinion polls and the disingenuous utterances of politicians with a wishful thought that we might all be buttoned up the back.

In the 11 by-elections that have taken place in the UK in the last year or so, Labour has won eight of them, with seven of those gains from the Conservatives.

The Liberal Democrats won one of the others (Somerton and Frome), the Conservatives held Boris Johnson’s old seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip by the skin of their teeth and George Galloway capitalised on Labour’s local problems in Rochdale to win a seat in parliament for the Workers Party of Britain, of which he is the leader.

The average swing in the seats Labour won is more than 21% and while extrapolating one by-election result across the country is not advisable, imagining the outcome of a general election this year on the back of 11 recent by-elections is more plausible.

Party strategists remain calm and focused, as you would expect, and you will see no signs of triumphalism. However, there is also no escaping the fact that these results – counting real votes cast by real people – suggest Labour will win a majority in the general election.

Labour knows that complacency is the most debilitating of political diseases. The party’s leadership and membership alike will however be taking comfort from the facts that they are now the only political force that can credibly argue for real change – and that voters seem to agree.