North Shropshire by‑election crash

Dave Kellaway asks if the party is over for Johnson


North Shropshire constituency was one of the Tories’ strongholds, a true blue seat for two hundred years. It is rural with small towns and no university. Conservatives held the seat with over 60% of the vote at the last election. And now:

Party                           %vote  change from 2019

Liberal Democrat        47.2% (+37.2)

Tory                             31.6%  (-31.1)

Labour                         9.7%    (-12.4)

Green                          4.6%    (+1.4%)

Reform UK (exUKIP)    3.8%    (+3.8)

Swing to Lib Dems from Tory : 34.2 Turnout: 46.2%

Roger Gale, a veteran Tory MP, said Johnson was on ‘last orders’ and that ‘one more strike and he was out’. The first strike was the revolt by 100 backbenchers earlier in the week over the Prime Minister’s Covid measures.

Oliver Dowden, Conservative Party chair, avoided any criticism of Johnson on BBC Breakfast TV today but accepted that the public had given them a ‘kicking’. He shifted the blame from Johnson to the sleaze surrounding the previous MP, Owen Paterson, and what he coyly called the current media stories i.e. the Xmas 2020 ‘partygate’. Like the Prime Minister he also desperately tried to shift the focus onto the national vaccination crusade.

Clearly the Paterson scandal, which showed that that MP was more interested in using his parliament position to make money than to work for his constituents, played very badly locally. This dovetailed into the furore over Johnson – his lies about the flat refurbishment paid out of electoral donations and the pathetic denial of Xmas parties at Number 10. The message that politicians are on the make and there is one rule for them and one for us resonated strongly among the voters. Even the Tory candidate, chosen specifically for his profession as a doctor, failed to clearly express his trust in the Prime Minister when questioned three times about it.

Despite the Liberal Democrat candidate coming third behind Labour last time, dissatisfied Tory voters flocked to her rather than to Labour. Politically, it was a smaller step for them to make than jump to Labour, even when Starmer is doing his best to have fairly similar policies to the Liberal Democrats. As well as Tory voters staying at home, the figures suggest something like half their votes switched to the LibDems. Around half the Labour voters did the same. Some Tories opted for the further right Reform UK party – one reincarnation of UKIP, which also stood on an anti-immigration ticket. The Greens held on and even slightly increased their electoral base.

Although there was no formal pact or agreement it is fairly obvious that there was an informal understanding. The LibDems maded little effort in Old Bexley and Sidcup the other week, where Labour had a better chance of defeating the Tory candidate, and Labour did not put in national resources this week in North Shropshire. Liberal voters contributed to the 10% swing from the Tories to Labour in Bexley. Jonathan Reynolds, a shadow cabinet member, gave the game away on breakfast TV today when he said the Labour Party had had to decide on the appropriate amount of resources to put into campaigns depending on how winnable the seat was. Angela Rayner did put in an appearance in the final days of the campaign but this was little more than window dressing. I received almost daily emails from the Labour apparatus during the Bexley by-election to go down and help but nothing about Shropshire.

Obviously the iniquitous, undemocratic first past the post electoral system makes this sort of tactical voting possible in certain contexts. It means that in many seats, if people want to get rid of a Tory MP they have to lend their vote to another party. There have been campaigns, promoted particularly by newspapers like the Guardian and Independent, for Labour, the LibDems and the Greens to come to a more formal agreement. On paper at least it would be a way of stopping Tory governments since they have hardly ever formed governments with more than 50% of the popular vote. The calculation is that how your voters are distributed geographically is more decisive than how many people actually vote for you.

While it is absolutely right for Labour to campaign to change the undemocratic electoral system – and 80% of members voted for this at Conference – it should not link this to formal programmatic alliance with the LibDems. Already, today on Facebook Mark Perryman, a leading progressive Labour activist from Lewes, is advocating such an approach. He even wrote a draft speech for Starmer to propose this line!

The LibDems helped implement Tory austerity during the Cameron years and would veto any radical Labour policies that even mildly challenged capitalist interests. However, in the event of a hung parliament following a general election there is a case for a short term, temporary pact to enact a decisive move to proportional representation to be used in an early new election. That would not in principle be wrong, in my opinion.

Shropshire also shows that talk of Labour not being able to form a majority government, because the swing required is just too much, is way off the mark. Some people on the left have even argued that Starmer’s purge of activists makes it very difficult for Labour to win because the party will lack troops for the ground campaign.

Johnson’s image has been severely tarnished, and while he has recovered in the past from setbacks like a cat with nine lives, this time it may have reached his eighth life. It is not just the impact of the Xmas parties in Downing Street and the overall mismanagement of the Covid pandemic, which will be examined in a forthcoming public enquiry, but the attack on living standards that could ensure that Tory support will continue to decline. The ‘levelling up’ rhetoric is coming up against the reality of tax increases, a social care ‘solution’ that penalises people with lower priced houses outside London and the South East, the continued squeeze on public spending, and the fact that inflation is eating into wages.

Unfortunately, the collapse in the Tory vote in the by-election does not reflect a growing nationwide militancy or movement of resistance in the workplaces or the communities. There have been successful local wage struggles which reflect some new confidence. However, government bills limiting our democratic rights or those of migrants are getting through parliament in the absence of mass demonstrations.

In Italy yesterday, two of the biggest trade union confederations organised a one day, limited general strike. Certainly it is seen as a bargaining counter with the government over the recovery fund but at least it mobilised hundreds of thousands of workers in strike actions and in demonstrations in Rome and five other regional capitals. The TUC, the Labour Party or individual unions are a long way from even organising these sorts of protests.

Johnson and the Tories have become more vulnerable. The 100 or so backbenchers defying the PM on Covid public health regulations may have more readily done so because they knew Labour MPs would ensure the government was not defeated, but they do represent a problem for Johnson. All wings of the party were involved. However there is a danger that the hard-core right-wing Brexiteers (the Spartans) who formed the cornerstone of his base could become a real problem for him. It would be a real irony if the insurrection organised by these people against Theresa May was repeated in some way against Johnson. At the very least, it makes it very hard for the PM to bring in another lockdown if it is needed.

Can Johnson survive? Commentators in some left websites like Counterfire are already saying Johnson will be gone in months. Both Counterfire and Socialist Worker were arguing to different degrees against Starmer’s position on supporting the Covid public health measures this week. Even if you oppose Johnson’s overall handling of the pandemic, this approach is wrong. You would effectively be aligning yourself with the anti-mask wearing libertarian right and taking a serious risk with everyone’s health. Even if Johnson had lost the vote, it would be far from certain that he or the government would fall.

Just as with the ‘Lexit’ position, there is an assumption that the masses are chafing at the bit to mobilise and overthrow the government and the inconvenience of effectively supporting some reactionary positions can just be discounted since there is an opportunity for a mass upsurge.

Johnson has a couple of cards still up his sleeve that can help him survive. The Xmas break could not come at a better time for him, particularly if a new lockdown is not brought in. Unless we have a lovely Xmas present of selfies or videos from the 2020 Xmas parties, with Johnson in the middle of them, the ‘partygate’ scandal might fade away.

Another advantage he has is the lack of a strong Tory leadership candidate. Liz Truss, playing as a pound shop Thatcher sitting in a tank, has not inspired much support. Rishi Sunak is still a bit too wet behind the ears to make a serious bid. Jeremy Hunt is just out of joint with the current hard-right control of the party. Nevertheless, if the polls really do dive and if he loses badly in the May local elections the party’s men in suits will get their knives out and he will be gone.

Johnson is also hoping that as a result of his national vaccination crusade, the pandemic will subside enough for him to claim some success. Apart from that, he can distract from his dishonesty and incompetence by launching new attacks on migrants or quarrels with the EU. Both of which could firm up his Brexit base.

Finally Johnson may benefit from what some see as Machiavellian tactics being touted by some parts of the Labour leadership team which think keeping Johnson afloat helps Labour, since Starmer would beat the wounded beast at the general election. Perhaps that explains why there has been so much shilly-shallying about actually calling on the Prime minister to resign.

People are suffering today from cuts in their welfare benefits or services, from a lack of decent housing, from soaring energy bills and from wages being eaten up by the Retail Price Index rising to 7%. They cannot wait for a general election two or three years down the road. We have to take advantage of the fall in Johnson’s popularity and the crisis in the Tory party to build confidence in mass self-organisation and resistance to all the policies of this government. Johnson and his government must go.

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Dave Kellaway is on the Editorial Board of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, a member of Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.

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