Labour Wins Back Key Seat as Sunak Suffers Big Election Losses

(Bloomberg) -- Labour won back a bellwether parliamentary seat from Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives in northwest England, as early local election results suggested the UK’s main opposition party is gathering pace in its efforts to return to power.

Most Read from Bloomberg

Labour’s Chris Webb won 58.9% of ballots cast, in an election for the “red wall” seat in Blackpool triggered after the Tory MP resigned in scandal. The result exposed deeper problems for the Tories as they barely held onto second place, securing just 117 more votes than the populist Reform UK party founded by Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage.

It represented a 26% swing from the Conservatives to Labour, the third-largest Tory-to-Labour shift since World War II. It follows similarly large moves in by-elections over the past year which, if replicated nationally at a general election due within 9 months, would make Labour leader Keir Starmer the next prime minister.

“This was indeed seismic and a stark reminder of just how bad public opinion is for the Conservative party is right now and how low their support is right across the country,” Patrick English, director of political analytics at YouGov, told Bloomberg radio. “It would suggest that the Conservatives are struggling, and it would suggest that Reform are a threat to the Conservatives and are eating into their vote and are causing them problems.”

Blackpool South is the first major setback in a predicted slew of defeats for Sunak’s Tories, as results from local council elections across England — plus key mayoralties such as London, Tees Valley and West Midlands — are announced Friday and over the weekend.

Early results suggested the Tories were on course for “one of the worst — if not the worst — Conservative performances in local government for the last 40 years,” political scientist John Curtice told the BBC on Friday morning. If later results follow the initial trend, the Tories would lose “half the seats they’re trying to defend,” Curtice said.

As of about 10 a.m. in London, Labour had made some eye-catching gains including taking control of councils in Thurrock, Hartlepool and Rushmoor. The Tories had lost 122 council seats — about half of the ones they were defending — with Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and independent candidates all making gains.

“Initial results look good for Labour, and there are no huge surprises so far,” said Jonathan Carr-West, chief executive of the Local Government Information Unit. “The narrative developing so far is one of large Conservative losses.”

Not everything went Labour’s way. The party lost overall control of the council in Oldham as independents gained seats amid local dissatisfaction over the party’s stance on the conflict in Gaza. Curtice said that “on average, the party’s support is down by eight points since last year in wards where more than 10% of people identify as Muslim.”

For Sunak, who has spent 18 months as prime minister fending off internal party criticism and rumors of plots to oust him, the results are seen as the final flash-point for his premiership ahead of the general election, which he has said he expects to call in the second half of the year.

Opponents on the right of the Tory party have warned that a particularly bad showing could trigger one final effort to change leader. However, Tory lawmaker and Sunak critic Andrea Jenkyns suggested on Friday morning that a move to oust him was “unlikely,” telling the BBC: “We have to work with what we have got.”

Still, Starmer’s party increasingly appears to be converting a poll lead that’s fluctuated around 20 points for months into actual votes. Even before Blackpool South, the Tory administration had accrued more by-election defeats in a single term than any government since the 1960s — the majority to Labour.

Growing support for Reform is also a concern for Sunak, because it means his party is losing votes on the right. That makes it even harder for the Tories to retain the so-called ‘Red Wall’ seats — the largely pro-Brexit constituencies in Britain’s industrial heartlands that historically voted Labour but flipped Tory in 2019 — because their right-wing support is divided.

“This is the one contest where voters had the chance to send a message to Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives directly, and that message is an overwhelming vote for change,” Starmer said in a statement.

Much of the focus now will be on the mayoral races, especially in the West Midlands and Tees Valley in northern England where Tories Andy Street and Ben Houchen are fighting to keep their roles. Both are seen as figureheads for recent Conservative inroads into Labour-facing areas.

Read More: How Sunak’s Future May Hinge on the Fate of Two Tory Mayors

Houchen won 73% of the vote in 2021 and is expected to hold onto his mayoralty, a result which Sunak would look to point to as an example that the Tories can still win elections against Labour. Street is seen as more vulnerable after Sunak canceled a high-speed railway link from Birmingham to Manchester last year.

In the local council elections, the Tories are defending just over 900 seats from the last vote in 2021, when the party — then led by Boris Johnson — was boosted by the roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccine. Tory peer Robert Hayward — a local elections expert — predicts his party may lose “on the upside of 400” of those.

On Thursday, YouGov polling gave the Tories their worst voting intention rating yet under the current prime minister, on 18% — lower even than the nadir under Liz Truss, Sunak’s predecessor whose economic policies crashed the markets during a disastrous 7-week tenure.

--With assistance from Rebecca Choong Wilkins.

Most Read from Bloomberg Businessweek

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.