Britain’s opposition Labour Party retained a parliamentary seat in the northwest of England on Friday, increasing their majority over the Conservatives in the first electoral test for Rishi Sunak as prime minister. The scale of the defeat offers the first electoral judgment on the Conservatives after a chaotic few months were Boris Johnson and Liz Truss were both ousted as prime minister, the latter after markets were spooked by her unfunded fiscal plans.
Sunak became prime minister on Oct. 25, taking leadership of a divided and fractious party at a time of economic crisis, tasked with tackling the impacts of soaring inflation and restoring financial markets confidence. Labour candidate Samantha Dixon won the City of Chester constituency, securing 61% of the vote, compared to 22% for the candidate from the Conservatives. Labour’s outright majority rose to 10,974 from 6,194.
Governing parties rarely do well in so-called by-elections, which take place outside the schedule of national elections when a lawmaker leaves their position. The next national election is expected in 2024. Charles Walker, a Conservative lawmaker who will stand down at the next election, said Sunak was doing the right things against the difficult backdrop of the year’s turmoil, but defeat at the next national election was likely unavoidable.
“It’s almost impossible to see us coming back from this,” Walker told Times Radio. “I hope what Rishi Sunak does is make sure Labour doesn’t wipe the floor with us, so that… we form a viable opposition.” The Conservatives have been in power since 2010.
British polling expert John Curtice said the 13% swing from Conservative to Labour in Chester confirmed the trend seen in national polls, where Labour holds a lead of around 20 points. Curtice said the scale of the swing could indicate Labour winning an outright majority in parliament at the next national election, but noted that local votes were rarely a good guide.
“Rishi Sunak is being reminded by the voters of Chester that he’s got quite a lot of work to do to get his party back in a position where we might consider the prospect of the Conservatives winning the next general election,” he told BBC Radio. Labour have held the Chester seat since the 2015 national election, when the party scraped through with a majority of just 93 there, the smallest in the country. Chester was held by the Conservatives between 2010 and 2015.
By-election defeats earlier this year in two previously Conservative-held seats led to the resignation of the party’s chairman and contributed to the pressure on Johnson to go. The Chester by-election was triggered after Labour lawmaker Christian Matheson resigned. An independent panel said he had breached parliament’s sexual misconduct policy for making “unwanted and unwelcome” advances towards a junior staff member.