‘Keir Starmer QC, Director of Public Prosecutions, Crown Prosecution Service, UK’ | Photo: Chatham House - Flickr | cropped from original | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 | license linked at bottom of article ‘Keir Starmer QC, Director of Public Prosecutions, Crown Prosecution Service, UK’ | Photo: Chatham House - Flickr | cropped from original | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 | license linked at bottom of article

Labour’s dreadful showing in the Chesham and Amersham by-election deepens a crisis for Labour to which Starmer has no answer, argues Terina Hine

Thursday’s crack in the blue wall of Chesham and Amersham has resulted in predictable calls for a progressive alliance, a lot of crowing about Brexit and the return of the Lib Dems as a political player. Yet possibly more significant is the fact that this embarrassing result for the Tories came hand-in-hand with a disastrous result for Keir Starmer’s Labour.

The by-election upset, dubbed by the Financial Times as the “revenge of the Metropolitan Line elite” (Amersham sitting at the farthest end of the Metropolitan tube line) has been blamed on Brexit, Boris, HS2 and planning, along with the usual by-election protest vote against a sitting government.

The fact that the election saw a swing to the Lib Dems was not a surprise – although the enormous 25% swing certainly came as a bitter shock to the Tories, who have held the seat since its creation in 1974 and lost a 16,233 majority. It surprised the Lib Dems too, with one Lib Dem volunteer commenting they were initially disappointed there would be no recount as they had hoped the vote would be close – never imagining the scale of the Tory rout.

But by-elections are not general elections. In a by-election, voters are not voting for the next government, hence the ruling party often polls badly, and traditionally the Lib Dems do well. But the Tory victory in Hartlepool shows this is more complex, and involves the catastrophe of the current Labour Party.

Of course, Labour would never expect to win in the leafy suburbs and wealthy villages of Buckinghamshire, but Chesham and Amersham gave Labour its worst by-election result in history. Labour received only 1.6% of the vote, came fourth, and even lost their deposit.

While in 2017, under Corbyn’s leadership, Labour came second with 11,374 votes (20.6%) and in the ‘Brexit General Election’ of 2019, received 12.9% of the vote share, with 7,166 votes.

Labour under Starmer was supposed to be electable, to appeal to the centre ground and to steal those soft Tory Remain voters away from the increasingly right-wing Brexit party the Conservatives have become. They parachuted a Blairite candidate into the Buckinghamshire seat, fully endorsed by Blair himself, and had several members of the shadow cabinet knocking on doors in the run up to polling day. Where did it get them? They took 622 votes, only two hundred more votes than Reform UK – the renamed Brexit party. Twice as many people voted Green than voted Labour.

The calls for a progressive alliance seem to forget that, at a general election, voters are choosing the next Prime Minister and government. Right now, that would be Keir Starmer and his Labour Party. The chances of anyone doing that is looking slimmer by the hour. So, no surprise when late on Friday night Ben Nunn, Starmers chief aide, resigned.

With the Batley and Spen by-election just over two weeks away, Labour is increasingly worried. Another lost Red Wall seat will be less easily blamed on the vaccine bounce.

The Tories are at least able to win some seats – even if not the traditional blue ones – but Labour, standing for nothing, win none. Another defeat and it could well be curtains for Starmer.

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