Debates ponder if the upcoming general election will mirror the close 1992 or landslide 1997 outcomes. Amid significant shifts, including in Blackpool South, Labour sees unprecedented by-election success, while the Conservatives face potential annihilation, struggling even against the Reform party.

T he last time Labour won Blackpool South, the party won 270 other constituencies. It was 1997, and Labour took 179 more than all other parties combined. Tony Blair walked down a flag-festooned Downing Street later that sunny May day.

The debate about whether Britain is approaching a 1992 knife-edge election, where a surprisingly resilient Conservative government retains office, or a 1997-style landslide in which it is humiliated, increasingly seems like being resolved.

Like Blackpool Tower, the constituency of Blackpool South stayed red for a long time after 1997. That was until, in 2019, it shifted on the sands of Brexit.

That general election felt more significant at the time than it seems likely to be in the long run. One of the least enduring consequences of that tumultuous event was the short and less-than-illustrious parliamentary career of now-former MP Scott Benton, who resigned following allegations he had breached lobbying rules (which he denied).

The swing from the Conservatives to Labour in the by-election to replace Benton was 26.3%. It is one of the biggest to Labour since the war: only Dudley in 1994 and Wellingborough in 2024 exceeded it.

Blackpool South is the fifth by-election swing to Labour of over 20% in this parliament alone. And six of Labour’s ten biggest post-war by-election gains have taken place in the past two years. For Labour leader Keir Starmer, in a statement that could easily have been written last month, the “seismic win in Blackpool South is the most important result today”.

Even for a by-election, however, a 32% turnout is poor. It perhaps reflects the extent of the enthusiasm for Labour, and for its leader. But this will be a general election of least worsts. Labour had higher fitness-to-govern ratings in 2014 than it does today, but the Conservative Party’s are far worse. Starmer has a low net satisfaction rating, but a better one than Sunak.

Reform stood selectively in these elections, performing better than the Conservatives, if not well. Their candidate took 17% in the Blackpool South by-election – the party’s highest vote share yet, in a seat where it ought to have been. David Jones, the Tory, managed only a narrow win of 117 votes over Reform’s Mark Butcher to finish second.

But in the Sunderland council elections, Reform beat the Tories in 16 out of 25 wards, and came second in the mayoral vote. A senior Conservative there told me a “very clear trend is that Reform is eating into Conservative vote”.

Their performance is short of UKIP in the 2010s but takes more votes from the Tories than UKIP did. Reform will not be the challenge to Labour that its precursor was.

— Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner and the newly elected Labour MP for Blackpool South, Chris Webb.

A night of pain

The wider council results are terrible for the Conservatives, inevitable though losses were.

Sunak seems to be linking his fate to the mayoralties rather than councils or constituencies. Ben Houchen has won re-election in Tees Valley and enjoyed Sunak’s company after his result was announced. But this should not be taken as a sign that the Tories are on the road to mere defeat instead of annihilation.

Houchen won despite Sunak, rather than because of him. By definition, a mayoral model is a personal model – the candidate over the party. Deep textual analysis would be required for a voter to have discerned from their campaign literature that Houchen was even a Conservative.

There were, nevertheless, council seat losses for Labour in the north west – in Bolton and in Oldham. Gaza is already a fault line in the Labour coalition, and the Greens have so far benefited. Labour did not take Harlow, despite the party’s leader visiting, twice.

The parliamentary Conservative party will decide whether to risk changing its leader for the fourth time in this parliament. Inviting a challenge to his leadership worked in the short term for John Major in 1995 – he wasn’t challenged again. But this isn’t 1995.

One parallel endures. As we saw in 1997, every Conservative is selling the line that all the party needs to do to get back on track is “get our message across”, keeping time with the rhythm of journalists’, incredulous, counterpoint questioning. It is a danse macabre befitting the Tower Ballroom itself.



▪ This piece was originally published in The Conversation and re-published in PUBLIC SQUARE UK on 9 May 2024. | The author writes in a personal capacity.
Cover: Flickr/Keir Starmer. (Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)
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