LONDON (AP) — Britain’s main opposition Labour Party decisively won two special elections Friday, snatching seats in Parliament that long were rock-solid bastions of the governing Conservatives.
Voters in Tamworth, central England, and Mid-Bedfordshire, located north of London, switched from the Conservative Party to Labour in almost unprecedented numbers. The outcome solidified Labour’s status as front-runner ahead of a national election next year and piled more pressure on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to turn his party’s fortunes around.
Labour leader Keir Starmer claimed his party was “redrawing the political map.”
“People are fed up to the back teeth after 13 years of decline under this government. They want a fresh start,” Starmer said as he visited Tamworth to congratulate winning Labour candidate Sarah Edwards.
Along with Edwards’ victory in Tamworth, where the Conservatives won by almost 20,000 votes in 2019, Labour candidate Alistair Strathern took Mid-Bedfordshire by overturning a 25,000-vote Tory margin.
John Curtice, a polling expert at the University of Strathclyde, said the “exceptional swings” to Labour could be compared to the collapse in Conservative support that took place under Prime Minister John Major in the 1990s.
“And we all know how that ended,” Curtice said — in a landslide 1997 election victory for Labour under Tony Blair.
Others cautioned that turnout in Thursday’s voting was low,, with turnout at 36% in Tamworth and 44% in Mid-Bedfordshire, and the elections were unusual because they were held to replace lawmakers who both resigned under a cloud.
Chris Pincher, who represented Tamworth, quit after Parliament’s standards watchdog recommended his suspension for “completely inappropriate” behavior. Pincher was accused of groping two men at a London private members’ club. Then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson’ s reluctance to sanction the Conservative legislator when the allegations emerged helped trigger Johnson’s ouster at the hands of his own party last year.
Mid-Bedfordshire member of Parliament Nadine Dorries resigned over the treatment of Johnson and her own failure to be appointed to Parliament’s upper chamber, the House of Lords. Dorries is a strong ally of Johnson who has blamed Prime Minister Rishi Sunak for helping to topple the former leader.
Conservative Party chairman Greg Hands blamed the losses on “legacy issues” and said people were “happy with the job Rishi Sunak is doing as prime minister.”
The results add to pressure on the governing party, which has lost several byelections since Sunak took office just under a year ago. He replaced Liz Truss, who announced her resignation a year ago Friday after her plan for unfunded tax cuts sent financial markets into turmoil and rocked the economy.
Truss spent just seven weeks in office after winning a party leadership contest to replace Boris Johnson, who quit after three years in office when scandals over money and ethics turned party lawmakers against him.
Sunak steadied the economy but has not managed to boost the party’s rating in opinion polls, where it consistently lags between 10 and 20 points behind Labour. A national election must be called by the end of 2024.
The Conservatives have been in power nationally since 2010, years that saw austerity following the world banking crisis, Britain’s divisive decision to leave the European Union, a global pandemic and a war in Ukraine that has triggered the worst cost-of-living crisis in decades.
Sunak has tried to rally support by arguing he has a long-term vision and is prepared to make tough decisions to change Britain. But Friday’s results confirmed polls showing the Conservatives losing support across the country, from affluent southern voters turned off by Brexit to working-class northern towns where voters switched from Labour in 2019 after Johnson promised to spread prosperity to long-neglected areas.
Starmer, who has moved his social democratic party toward the political center since becoming leader in 2020, said former Conservative voters had “put their trust and their confidence in us.”
“We we accept this victory humbly, knowing that we have to earn the votes of voters across the whole of the country, and we do that by putting our positive case to the country,” he said.