The Tories’ lesson from Uxbridge: pretend not to be the Tories
The Conservative Party was barely mentioned in election leaflets, while Boris Johnson’s name didn’t come up once
“Wow!” cried Steve Tuckwell, the new Tory MP for Uxbridge & South Ruislip, as he started his victory speech.
Tuckwell’s razor-thin victory came as a surprise to pundits – but also to his own party and, apparently, to Tuckwell himself.
Even though this true-blue slice of suburbia has voted Tory at every election for the last 53 years, most commentators had predicted that Labour would gain Boris Johnson’s old seat, which the former prime minister quit in sensational fashion last month.
Instead, the Conservatives held on by 495 votes, slashing the previous majority of 7,210.
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Not that all of Uxbridge’s voters necessarily knew that Steve Tuckwell was a Conservative. openDemocracy collected a range of Conservative leaflets handed out during the campaign, barely any of which so much as mentioned the Conservative Party and even those only in small print. None of them mentioned Boris Johnson.
The only mention of Rishi Sunak came in an eight-page booklet: there was a small photo of one of Sunak’s campaign stops, which didn’t even have a caption mentioning who he was. When Tuckwell gave his victory speech and interviews, he again failed to mention the prime minister.
Instead, Tuckwell fought an almost single-issue campaign, opposing London mayor Sadiq Khan’s proposal to extend the Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) to the outer suburbs.
Voters could have been forgiven for thinking Tuckwell was standing as an independent. He was described as a “local man and anti-ULEZ campaigner”, and “The STOP ULEZ candidate”, with one voter quoted as saying “I’m voting for Steve to stop ULEZ”. Indeed, more than one voter openDemocracy spoke to said they were only bothering to turn out in order to register a protest against the scheme.
This was despite the fact that the ULEZ policy was first introduced by Khan’s predecessor as mayor – the same Boris Johnson whose departure triggered the by-election.
In this heavily car-dependent area, with wide roads and large drives, the issue clearly cut through. So did dislike of Sadiq Khan – whose photo appeared on Tuckwell’s leaflets almost as many times as Tuckwell himself.
‘Horrendous on the doorsteps’
Tuckwell, by his own admission to the BBC, “wasn’t expected to win this election”. He did not appear to have been briefed by CCHQ on the usual “lines to take”, either, instead simply repeating his ULEZ campaign theme in answer to almost every question.
openDemocracy visited several local Conservative headquarters during the campaign. None seemed terribly energised; at the Uxbridge Conservative Club, our reporter was met with the words: “What are you doing here? You can’t come in – there’s no-one around to answer your questions.”
Other Tory activists we spoke to said it had been “horrendous on the doorsteps” and that they weren’t expecting to hold the seat. Campaigners who were sent a morale-boosting video of the candidate on Wednesday night told openDemocracy that Tuckwell looked “exhausted”, and “a broken man”.
At another Conservative HQ in the seat, a party worker told us that Boris Johnson had been “a divisive figure… he doesn’t come up on the doorstep much but, when he does, it’s negative”.
None of the other parties managed to set the campaign ablaze with other issues. Both Labour and the Tories pledged to save a local police station, each blaming the other for its threatened closure.
Meanwhile, Laurence Fox’s Reclaim Party was keen to claim momentum. It blitzed the constituency with glossy leaflets, held a string of press stunts, and on election day they tweeted a picture of Fox in an oak-panelled office with the words: “If things go well in Uxbridge and South Ruislip this evening, I give you the next PM of the United Kingdom.” Hours later, Fox lost his deposit, polling just 2.3%.
This was a low-turnout election – though, at 46%, slightly less so than in either of yesterday’s other by-elections.
As political reporters, we’re used to people being jaded. But speaking to voters a week before polling day, the anger seemed particularly bitter. This wasn’t the vague shrug of boredom with politics. It was an active rage.
Most of the people we stopped in the street stormed off as soon as we mentioned the election.
Many of those who did chat sneered at the idea of voting. Some had little idea a by-election was happening; some didn’t know Boris Johnson had been their MP. But they were proud not to be stupid enough to waste their time with all that.
Some told us that they were voting, but only negatively – Tory because they were against ULEZ, Sadiq Khan or Labour in general; or Labour because they were against the Tories. No one we spoke to mentioned anything they were for, anything they were excited about, anything positive at all. If there was a mention of Starmer or Sunak, it was angry.
“The only thing worse than no hope is false hope,” Labour front-bencher Wes Steeeting wrote recently. His party’s commitment to the second worst thing had clearly filtered through to people in Uxbridge.
“We’re fucked,” said one man. If there was an attitude among the people openDemocracy spoke to on the high street in Uxbridge, he had summed it up.
While the media tends to focus on swings in by-elections, in reality, they almost always have much lower turnouts than general elections. The stories they tell are about which parties do and don’t succeed in persuading their backers to the ballot box.
The turnout means taking some of the headline results with a pinch of salt. In Selby and Ainsty, where Labour overturned a majority of 20,000 on a huge swing, their actual number of votes was only 2,600 higher than last time – but they benefited from a vast collapse in turnout among 2019 Tory supporters, just over one in three of whom turned out. In Somerton and Frome, where a 19,000 majority was turned into an 11,000 majority on a 29% swing, the Lib Dem vote was still 15,000 short of what the Tories polled last time. And in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, Labour lost 5,000 of its 2019 voters – if it had held its ground, it would have won comfortably. Meanwhile, the Tories managed to turn out more than half of their 2019 voters.
Conservatives will take solace in the fact they managed to hang on in one of these three difficult seats. But the lesson they may draw from Uxbridge – disowning their own party label, and standing a hyper-local, single-issue candidate – may be one that they struggle to translate into a general election strategy.
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