On Friday, the results came in from three by-elections: in Selby and Ainsty, Somerton and Frome, and Uxbridge and South Ruislip. This article takes a quick look at the conclusions we can draw from those results:

  • First, and most obviously, these results were not good for the Conservatives;
  • Secondly, tactical voting has arrived; and
  • Thirdly, the Conservatives now face some tough decisions.

Not good for the Conservatives

The Conservatives lost two of the three seats contested (in Selby and Ainsty and in Somerton and Frome). And those two would normally be considered safe seats. At the last General Election, both had high turnouts and large majorities of around 20,000 (or roughly 30% of the votes cast).

In both Selby and Ainsty and Somerton and Frome, those large majorities were overturned. And that may well indicate a fundamental change in voting habits which transcends party politics.

As The Independent reported,

“Labour’s victory at Selby and Ainsty has made history: it is the largest Conservative majority (20,137) overturned by the party at a by-election since 1945.

The swing at Somerton was 29.0 percentage points, or the equivalent of a net change of 29 in every 100 people who voted Tory in 2019 switching sides. … The Conservatives were defending a majority at Somerton of 19,213 and it is one of the largest of its kind to be overturned at a UK by-election since 1945, sitting just outside the top five.”

Tactical voting has arrived

As we have a first-past-the-post voting system in the UK, in many constituencies only two parties have a plausible chance of winning.

Nevertheless, historically, voters have tended to vote for the candidate they prefer, even if the chances of a win were low. Indeed, many people have assumed that the ‘right’ way to vote was to choose a candidate or party to vote for. In practice, this has meant that many votes have essentially counted for nothing.

But it looks as if voting habits may be changing.

Note: this chart includes only votes for the Conservatives, Labour, LibDems and Greens – there were a small number cast for other parties.

In Selby and Ainsty, in the 2019 General Election, the number of votes for the LibDems and the Greens was small, but certainly not negligible; but in the 2023 by-election, many of these voters had switched to Labour. In Somerton and Frome, in the General Election, the number of votes for Labour was small, but certainly not negligible; but in the by-election, many of these voters had switched to LibDem. In Uxbridge and West Ruislip, only the two main parties took a non-negligible share of the votes in either election.

These results suggest that voters are increasingly recognising that even if they cannot make a vote for count, they can make a vote against highly effective. By voting tactically for the party most likely to defeat the Conservatives, they have been able to inflict severe defeats in seats which would previously have seemed invulnerable. If, for example, you prefer Green policies, in most constituencies, voting for the Green Party has no effect, but voting against the party likely to do most damage to the environment could be decisive.

A widespread shift to tactical voting is itself a game-changer for UK politics.


Conservatives face tough decisions

The Conservative party is putting a brave face on these results and the Prime Minister has said that the next general election is “not a done deal,” drawing hope from the fact that the Conservatives, though they lost a lot of ground to Labour, managed to cling on to Uxbridge and West Ruislip with a majority of 495.

But his colleagues will be looking at these results in the context of the wider polls and noting that while until April, under Sunak, the Conservatives seemed gradually to be gaining ground and had narrowed Labour’s lead to 15%, since then they have been drifting down and the Labour lead has widened again to 20%.

So, they have a choice: refresh or replace – do they attempt to refresh the Sunak premiership before the next election, or do they risk yet another change of leader?

In a refresh we could expect to see:

  • A reshuffle – and a claim that this represents a fresh new Cabinet with new ideas and new energy;
  • New policy announcements – many with enormous benefits claimed to flow after the next General Election;
  • A declaration that “the real work starts today, to deliver for the British people.”

In the case of replacement, we might expect:

  • A period of indecision in which the contenders announce that “there is no vacancy” and “I have no plans to run for leadership” – and indeed, ‘winning’ the leadership at a time like this could well mark the end of a candidate’s leadership expectations: the Conservative Party does not give many second chances;
  • A tipping point when, as with Liz Truss, although senior Tories said it would make the party look ridiculous to replace yet another Prime Minister without a General Election, they decided that not acting was even worse;
  • A beauty parade in which all the candidates would be Tufton Street proteges;
  • A winner, who while claiming to represent a decisive break from the failed policies of the last 13 years, would simply continue to push the market fundamentalist agenda;
  • A honeymoon in the right-wing media lasting up to the next election;
  • A Conservative defeat.

Almost certainly, we will see a refresh; we may also see a replacement. We should also expect increasing use of disinformation, divide and rule tactics and other forms of electoral manipulation, as The Times reported.


For those of us who believe that the market fundamentalist experiment with the UK has been disastrous for household finances, for the economy overall, for public services and for the environment, there are grounds here for cautious optimism – though, as we have said before, none for complacency.

We now have the opportunity to introduce an agenda which preserves and strengthens the UK’s social contract.

If you think you might like to help, take a look at The 99% Organisation and join us.