What yesterday’s by-elections show about Britain’s changing political geography, and the future of English devolution

Well, that was a bit confusing.

In an astonishing result, Labour overturned the Conservatives’ 20k majority in the North Yorkshire seat of Selby and Ainsty, making Keir Mather the new ‘baby of the House’. 

The Lib Dems cruised to an even bigger but less surprising victory in Somerton and Frome, where the Conservative vote collapsed.

But in Boris Johnson’s former seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, there is a perhaps more interesting story about the politics of devolution and Net Zero. In the outer London seat where Labour was widely expected to win, the Tories’ Steve Tuckell squeaked to victory after the party made the election a ‘referendum on Ulez’. Specifically, Mayor Sadiq Khan’s expansion of the ultra-low-emission zone, a daily fee charged to those driving the most polluting vehicles. 

The effect of Ulez is a sign of things to come with Net Zero. The idea of making life more expensive is such a powerful one for voters, but green policies can and must be done in a way which brings costs down for people. The result in Uxbridge is a little warning sign that for the bigger transformation needed for Net Zero, politicians have to change the narrative and bust some myths, or else risk frightening the public.

As Angela Rayner said about Uxbridge, “when you don’t listen to the voters, you don’t win elections”. There are clear tensions emerging between the national party and a Mayor’s agenda, which ultimately comes from a responsibility directed to him by government. With Keir Starmer today calling on Mayor Khan to “reflect” on the Ulez expansion, we are learning more about the nature of the relationship between the likely next government, and our major cities’ directly-elected leaders.

 These elections show that the cost of living is the thing that matters right now. The NHS and crime are also up there, but the cost of living is the lens through which almost everything is being seen by voters, and the thing the parties will have to relentlessly focus on. Where there is fear of a higher cost of living for driving a polluting vehicle, the Tories salvaged Uxbridge against the odds. Where lots of people have mortgages, and the cost of living has exploded even more, the old ‘party of homeownership’ has been given a drubbing.

 The magnitude of Labour’s success in Selby cannot be overstated. With a 24% swing, this is the biggest majority the party have ever overturned in a by-election. If Labour are capable of winning in Selby, it perhaps makes the first mayoral contest in North Yorkshire next year a tighter battle rather than a shoo-in for the Tories’ Keane Duncan, selected this week.

 And with the London mayoralty, where first-past-the-post will be used for the first time. With Ulez clearly damaging the Labour vote in the outer boroughs – those boroughs which delivered Boris Johnson two victories – we could be looking at an interesting campaign.

Perhaps the real key numbers are 2.6%, 3.3% and 1.7%. The Labour vote in Somerton, and the Lib Dem results in Selby and Uxbridge. These deposit-losing shares are yet more evidence of tactical voting against the Conservatives. It might not have been enough in Uxbridge, but non-Conservative voters are, perhaps more than any time since 1997, working out who has the best chance of defeating kicking out the Tories, and voting for them. 

The Conservatives have proven themselves to still be very capable of sweating the small stuff: the local, day-to-day things that matter to people. That may or may not be enough to pull off an electoral miracle next year. There are more places like Selby and Ainsty – and many with smaller Conservative majorities – than there are outer London seats angry about the Ulez expansion. The Conservatives can seek solace in this result, but local campaigns opposing emissions zones here, or housebuilding there, do not change the fundamentals. Having lost two safe seats in two regions to two parties, the Tories are being attacked from all angles. And at the same time, whilst Labour can learn some lessons from Uxbridge, Selby shows that when they get it right, they can win almost anywhere.