Today’s by-elections in Tamworth and Mid-Bedfordshire are not a make-or-break moment by any means, but important staging posts on the course to the next General Election.

Labour is looking for two big wins to continue their recent run of good form. This will keep up the momentum generated after by-election victories in both Selby and Ainsty and Rutherglen and Hamilton West, and a strong Conference performance.

The Conservatives will hope to hold historically secure Tory seats and illustrate that they still have strong support within their voting base.

As ever with by-elections, the Liberal Democrats are working hard to spoil the party, specifically in Mid Beds where they are looking to pick up another seat and strengthen their parliamentary representation.

The Context

Both by-elections are a result of Conservative MPs resigning.

In Tamworth, Chris Pincher stepped down following allegations of groping – a narrative that also spelled the beginning of the end for then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

In Mid-Bedfordshire, Nadine Dorries announced her intention to quit parliament in early-June, reportedly frustrated at having been denied a peerage. It took another two months before she formally resigned at the end of August. This was widely ridiculed and meant the backdrop to today’s by-election has been long in the making.

The by-elections follow a party conference season that was a tale of two parties at very different stages in their life cycles. Labour left Liverpool feeling buoyant, inspired, and enthused to chase the keys to Downing Street. The Conservatives are in a different position, as they look for ways to tool-up for an election that could spell the end of 13 years in power.

Starmer and Sunak remain close in popularity polls, though, and it could be these fine margins that end up being the difference in today’s by-elections and others that could come in the next twelve months.

The Campaigns

Many by-elections are fought on locally focused, nuanced issues. Here, though, some of the topics at the heart of the campaign narratives are also being played out on a national stage; housing and planning policy is a focus in Mid Beds, and the economic prosperity of ‘middle England’ is key in Tamworth. Turn out will be lower than in a General Election, too, raising the stakes on each vote cast.

Despite Conservative majorities of over 20,000, both Tamworth and Mid Beds are up for grabs. The situations in which both MPs have stepped down have frustrated their constituents, with some ready to lend their vote to Labour or the Lib Dems by way of protest as much as support.

In Tamworth, it appears to a be a two-horse race with Labour using the scrapping of HS2 as political leverage. Starmer has said that Labour will have to ‘earn every vote’ in a constituency that the party won in a 1996 by-election but lost again in 2010.

In Mid Beds, all three major parties are in play. Polling is showing Labour and the Conservatives tied at 29%, with the Liberal Democrats at 22%. Labour has invested more resource here, into the campaign of its candidate Alistair Strathern, but such is the strength of the Lib Dems in by-elections that the party is taking nothing for granted.

Festus Akinbusoye, the Conservative candidate, has been attempting to assure the people of Mid Beds that he will be a more visible representative than his predecessor, but has recently come under fire for continuing as a paid Police and Crime Commissioner throughout the campaign.

The Impact

The by-elections arrive at an important time in the political calendar and will do as much for party morale as they will for election arithmetic. That said, these boosts can be short-lived.

Labour’s win in Rutherglen and Hamilton West was heralded as a sign of things to come in Scotland, but it is easy to forget that the defeat in Uxbridge, which drew heavy criticism and exposed rifts within the party, was not all that long ago.

No Prime Minister likes to lose by-elections, but less so one who is already under a considerable amount of pressure from his own party and beyond. As such, Rishi Sunak will be keeping a keen eye on the exit polls this evening, hoping that his party has done enough to hold on to two important seats. This would be welcome relief in a period where political and policy challenges have dogged an administration which is searching hard for stability and control.

For Labour and the Lib Dems, opportunity beckons and with it the chance to restate their capabilities to win big outside of their heartlands. Labour, particularly, will hope for a repeat of their 1996 by-election win in Tamworth, which pre-empted Tony Blair’s landslide victory in the General Election a year later.

While winning is always good, Tamworth and Mid Beds are not the ultimate prize. The opportunity to take that will come at some point next year, by which time we will know a lot more about the parties, their leaders and their plans for the country.