Lessons from the by-elections – for the parties, and for business

Having avoided becoming the first Prime Minister since 1968 to lose three by-elections on the same day, you could forgive Rishi Sunak for taking some crumbs of comfort from the unexpected win in Uxbridge and South Ruislip.

But as the dust settles, and the three new MPs are sworn in in September, the harsh reality will start to bite. Holding on to the seat with a reduced majority of 495, the average drop in Conservative support across all three by-elections was 21-points; consistent with national opinion polls showing a significant Labour lead.

But beyond the immediate political impact of this week’s elections, and with each of the major parties winning a seat, what lessons can the Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems learn from these results as all eyes now turn to the next general election?

Balancing the climate and cost-of-living crises

Steve Tuckwell’s win in west London was undoubtedly contingent on his opposition to the Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ); he even claimed that London Mayor “Sadiq Khan lost Labour this election”. The expansion of the ULEZ has proven to be extremely controversial, with Labour’s candidate in the constituency, Danny Beales, also coming out against it during the campaign, due to the cost-of-living crisis.

The balance between tackling the climate crisis and the ongoing impact of the increasing cost-of-living remains a difficult one for politicians to strike. With researchers saying there’s now a 66% chance we will pass the 1.5⁰C global warming threshold between now and 2027, action on the climate has never been more urgent. However, with households continuing to face high levels of food and fuel inflation, and many seeing climate policies adding to these costs, it is proving difficult for the parties to prioritise sustainability.

If the UK is to meet its climate goals, however, action is needed. Navigating the role of the public, and the expectation to take collective action, is going to continue to present a challenge for the parties, particularly if they want to be environmentally ambitious.

Wedge issues matter

The controversy surrounding the ULEZ marks a wider lesson – local issues, not just Westminster politics, matter to voters.

Despite Labour’s consistent lead in the polls, ULEZ has shown how a local, wedge issue can derail support for the Party. The Conservatives will seek to take advantage of this phenomenon elsewhere, but they will also be conscious of where they could fall foul of this as well.

Labour’s record victory in Selby and Ainsty, which sees 25-year-old Keir Mather become the ‘Baby of the House’, was partly due to voter sentiment that they had been abandoned by their last MP, Nigel Adams, in a shock resignation when he wasn’t appointed to the House of Lords. This seemingly helped Labour to bring together a new coalition of voters in the typically Conservative seat.

It’s the economy, stupid

The continually bleak economic outlook did not help the Conservative Party in these by-elections.

While the rate of inflation fell again to 7.9% in June, down from 8.7% in May, ultimately, voters are continuing to feel the pinch, particularly around food and energy.

There also remains the question of what core inflation means for interest rates. It is expected the Bank of England will implement at least a 0.25 percentage point hike to try to lower the rate of inflation, putting further pressure on some mortgage holders.

Voters are likely to vote according to their pockets at the next general election, and the parties will have to prove they can be trusted. For the Conservatives, this means meeting their priority to halve inflation this year.

What it means for businesses engaging with government

These are also important lessons for businesses to bear in mind when looking to engage with government and the opposition in the coming months.

If you have an ask, or an offer, you should filter your ideas through the prism of these lessons.

  1. Could your proposal be framed as helping with the cost-of-living crisis – or conversely, is there a risk of adding to the burden facing households?
  2. Is there a risk that your ideas might cause the parties a challenge with a particular demographic or voter group?
  3. And perhaps most importantly, does your idea help the parties achieve their economic ambitions? In particular, is it fully costed?
  4. Do you have a green proposal with tangible and measurable short-term economic benefits?

By considering your engagement in this way, you will create the most compelling proposition possible, and ensure your views are heard at a time when the parties are in listening-mode.

If you’d like to have an informal chat about what the byelections mean for the upcoming general election, and building a public affairs programme for your business in the run-up please get in touch via [email protected]