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The voters of Wellingborough and Kingswood said one thing with one voice: the Tory era is over | Polly Toynbee

The voters of Wellingborough and Kingswood said one thing with one voice: the Tory era is over | Polly Toynbee
The voters of Wellingborough and Kingswood said one thing with one voice: the Tory era is over | Polly Toynbee


The rout of the Tories gallops on across the country, as yesterday the voters of Wellingborough and Kingswood stampeded away from them in yet more home-turf byelections – their ninth and 10th losses, more than any government in more than 50 years. The size of these Labour victories is becoming so routine that there’s a risk of people growing blase. Anything less would have been headlined a disaster, even in seats never in Labour’s sights: a swing of 16.4% in the South Gloucestershire seat was good, but the 28.5% swing in the North Northamptonshire seat was the second biggest flight from Tory to Labour since the second world war. Pause here to relish for a few moments the delightful factoid that a swing like that repeated everywhere at the general election would, according to some calculations, leave only four Tory seats.

The Tories could hardly have had a worse day, as the Office for National Statistics revealed the country had fallen into recession as voters went to the polls in the rain. Only a “technical recession”, they kept saying, the official definition of two consecutive quarters of declining GDP: I doubt anyone’s bank manager would be any more impressed than voters by a claim that your bank account was only suffering a “technical overdraft”. Confirmation from the statistics was hardly needed, as voters told canvassers they could feel the recession in their pockets after seven quarters of falling real living standards, the worst since 1955. The Tory die is cast, just as it was in 1997, when even a rapidly improving economy cut no mustard with voters who had made up their minds on previous economic mismanagement.

The big story now is not Rishi Sunak on the run, and whether the voters in a general election or his own raucous party get to throw out their third PM in less than two years. This is not about him – he will merely take his place among the insignificants on No 10’s yellow staircase of ex-prime ministers.

What’s happening is one of those epochal political moments, a deep revolt against the extreme brand of conservatism that brought us austerity, Brexit and finally Liz Truss, killing off any popular appetite for small statism. This is a rejection that seems deep-rooted and irreversible. It is more than the occasional spasm to “throw the bastards out”. Tory support, in its present extreme incarnation, is literally dying out: each year the age at which a cohort votes majority Tory grows older.

But if this is the moment when “individualism”, “neoliberalism” and “Thatcherism” is finally dying, the new world is struggling to be born, to borrow from Antonio Gramsci. Labour has yet to imprint an idea of its “new world”. Voters know what they won’t stand for any more, but they have yet to decide if they positively like Labour. That’s a peril: Labour will need solid backing once in power, as it faces the scorched earth of an empty Treasury, and the unspecified £20bn cuts Jeremy Hunt will leave them, and even more if he presses on with tax cuts he knows to be wickedly irresponsible bribes that won’t even buy his government many votes. Labour needs at least two terms. Sunak warns of Labour taking the country back to “square one” – if only – but returning services and infrastructure to 2010 levels will take time.

Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves need to feel a warm positive support to see them through those hard early times. Wobbling on a popular policy such as the £28bn green prosperity plan has not polled well. Rumours of dilution of Labour’s excellent new deal for workers’ rights need to be scotched at once. The general impression of flip-floppery, and tendency to retreat at the first whiff of enemy gunfire, risks looking as if Labour policy announcements are liable to bounce like bad cheques. The rise of the right in these byelections is a gift to Labour electorally, but once it is in power, trying to turn the country away from that easy-answers poison could be a serious problem.

The chaos of the Rochdale byelection on 29 February, in which Labour has ended up with no candidate in its own seat, will be uncomfortable. It may well be that by hesitating too long to eject a candidate caught mouthing antisemitic conspiracy theories, and by angering supporters with its position on Gaza, the party may hand the seat to that demagogic old rogue George Galloway. It’s a tragedy in itself for Labour to lose its long-established support from the Muslim community. But according to the work of Prof Rob Ford, the concentration of that support may result in the loss of only three seats that Labour might have won: “A very large drop in Muslim support for Labour is unlikely to materially impact the next general election,” he says.

Today, brows remain furrowed in Labour’s high command. They enjoyed a good morning but then back came the terrors of all that could still snatch victory from them. But they should take heart and be brave, because something pivotal happened today. The Tory era is over.

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