For several months, nervous Labour MPs have looked at the national polls and asked themselves whether their commanding leads can really be trusted. On Thursday night, voters in Chester gave them, at least for now, an answer: yes.
Thursday’s thumping byelection victory, with Labour winning its highest ever majority in the seat in a 14-point vote swing, suggests the party would win a comfortable majority if a general election were held today. It provides further evidence Labour is rebuilding support in the so-called red wall of northern seats, many of which it lost at the last election.
Sir John Curtice, a professor of politics at Strathclyde University, told the BBC on Friday morning the result suggested the opposition party was heading for a “favourable” majority.
“This is consistent with the claim that a) Labour are in a stronger position than they’ve ever been in the last 12 years; and b) the performance is consistent with what happened last time we had the defeat of a Conservative government,” he said.
One Labour source said: “This is a phenomenal result for us, a landslide, bigger even than 1997 [when the party won 53% of the vote]. These are the kinds of seats we need to be winning if we are to show we are on course for a general election victory.”
The seat is not the marginal it once was. In 2015, Labour won by just 93 votes, but the party won sizeable majorities at the two elections since.
Nevertheless, the party went into the byelection against a difficult backdrop. The vote was called after Chris Matheson resigned amid sexual misconduct allegations. Labour officials said, however, that the controversy had not been a big issue on the doorstep, where voters were keener to talk about the economy, as well as more local issues such as Chester high street.
Samantha Dixon, the new Labour MP, said during her acceptance speech that she had been greeted on the doorstep by one voter who was wrapped in blankets after her energy bills rose by hundreds of pounds.
For the Conservatives, the result gives some tentative signs that the electorate is not as hostile to the party as it was in the final days of Liz Truss’s premiership, when Labour enjoyed national poll leads of more than 30 points.
But if the party hoped Rishi Sunak’s leadership might help restore the voter coalition that propelled it to election victory in 2019, there is little sign of that.
Andy Carter, the Tory MP for Warrington South, told the Telegraph on Thursday night: “We are mid-term in what has been an incredibly challenging parliamentary term on the back of Covid, a war in Ukraine where prices have shot up.”
He added: “We’ve got two years until the next general election … I think [Rishi Sunak] has been in the job for five weeks doing a great job tackling inflation.”
If Sunak wanted more time to be able to prove himself to voters, he will not get it. The parties will contest two more byelections in north-west England in the coming weeks. The first will be in Stretford and Urmston on 15 December, and the second on an unconfirmed date in West Lancashire.
Some Conservative MPs believe, however, that the result in Chester shows the situation is unsalvageable for the new prime minister.
Sir Charles Walker, the MP for Broxbourne, told Times Radio on Friday: “It’s almost impossible to see us coming back from this.” He added that the best Sunak could hope for at the next election would be to “win maybe 220 seats and form a viable opposition”.