Mid Bedfordshire by-election preview: Lib Dems are unfounded favourites

Patrick Flynn

1 September 2023

At long last, we got confirmation this week of the Mid Bedfordshire by-election, with Nadine Dorries stepping down three months after her initial ‘with immediate effect’ resignation. This presents us with the first by-election in a long time with more than three plausible winners, making for a very exciting betting heat with no clear favourite.

The only poll conducted of the by-election so far shows the race to be wide open. The Opinium survey saw no party breaking the 30% mark and five candidates in double figures.

Despite placing fourth in the poll and third at the most recent general election, the Liberal Democrats are the current market favourites at a 46% chance on Smarkets, though they traded as high as 79% when we first opened the market in June.

On the surface, their market position is understandable given that the party started from third place in two of the four gains they made from the Conservatives in by-elections this parliament, receiving a healthy dose of tactical voting from Labour supporters. The party is also pushing hard in this constituency, but had only chosen their candidate two weeks before the now two-month-old poll was conducted.

However, I think it's a misconception to characterise Mid Bedfordshire as similar to recent Lib Dem gains. In those seats, even in cases where the party finished third in 2019, there was a widespread assumption that Labour would not be able to win over enough Conservative voters to be competitive, leaving Ed Davey's party as the only major challengers. Labour's recent victory in deep-blue Selby and Ainsty has undoubtedly changed that perception in Labour HQ, and Keir Starmer will want to build on the momentum. Labour will be actively targeting the seat, putting them at loggerheads with the Lib Dem by-election machine. This fact alone will shave a big chunk off the potential Lib Dem vote share.

Furthermore, in all their by-election gains since 2019, the Lib Dems either had control or were the main opposition party in one of the councils overlapping with the constituency's boundaries. For Mid Bedfordshire, though, they ended up fourth in the similarly-named Central Bedfordshire council, which occupies most of this seat, while finishing a close third in the smaller Bedford. In total, the party only mustered up 11% of the vote earlier this year in Mid Bedfordshire's wards, so it's clear that there just isn't the same level of local representation for the party as there was in previous by-elections.


Central Bedfordshire is a rare council in that the administration is independently-run. The current chair of the council, Gareth Mackey, is standing in this by-election. Mackey, a former Conservative, racked up an impressive 19% in the Opinium poll of this seat, drawing support from all three major parties and putting him in third place. Despite the rarity of by-election victories beyond the main three parties, give the strength of independents in the largest local council, the lack of clear opposition in this seat and the likely low winning vote share, his current odds of 30 or higher look far too long for me, and I would happily back him at that price. With a solid campaign which peels off more disaffected Tories, you cannot rule out Mackey coming through the middle and taking the seat with around 30% of the vote. It's a long shot, but certainly not as long as the odds suggest.

Coming back to the Mid Bedfordshire poll, there is a final point I wanted to discuss regarding the Greens and Reform. The Greens, despite finishing fourth in the seat in 2019, were excluded from the prompted options, whereas Reform were included. This will undoubtedly have made an impact on the shares for the two major parties. Based on national polling, you could probably expect Labour to have lost a couple of points in the poll had the Greens been prompted.

Reform, on the other hand, hit 10%, a figure which is extremely unlikely to materialise. Over the last two years, Reform's poll numbers at both the national and constituency levels have shown themselves to be completely illusory, and are almost entirely made up of disaffected Tory voters. In Selby and Ainsty, Reform received 8% in a J.L. Partners poll, but they still went on to lose their deposit.

In this particular poll, 17% of 2019 Conservatives opted for Reform, with the equivalent figure just 1% for Labour and no 2019 Lib Dems picking them. At a general election, most of the Reform share will end up going back to the Conservatives, but the question remains whether these voters will show up for a by-election. It's probably reasonable to assume that the Tories will take a chunk of the 10% and others will stay at home, putting Reform around 5% when it comes to the actual result. Had the poll prompted for the Greens and had the Reform share reflected their actual electoral performance in recent years, I suspect the Conservatives would have been narrowly ahead.

There are four plausible victors in this by-election, and all four will be campaigning hard. As things stand, the Conservative opposition is going to be heavily split in multiple directions, so there's every chance that the Tories could plummet to the 30–35% range and still hold on to the seat.

For me, the Conservatives ought to be favourites to hold on here, and I would probably put them around 2.5 (40%), with Labour at 3.5 (29%), the Lib Dems at 4.5 (22%) and an independent victory at 10 (10%). On current odds, backing Conservative and Independent and laying the Liberal Democrats look like the value positions.

Patrick Flynn

1 September 2023

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