By Election Results And What They Tell Us

In a previous article I looked at the polls during Corbyn’s period as leader, noting the deterioration in the period post the referendum/coup compared to that preceding it. I also noted that actual election results up to and including May 2016 were not bad, and for the parliamentary by-elections and mayoral elections were very good. 

Let us now have a look at the actual results since the referendum/coup in late June. There have been only by- elections during this period, four parliamentary with two pending, and many council by-elections.

There is no point in considering the Batley and Spen by-election, as none of the other major parties contested it out of respect for the murdered Jo Cox, so it cannot tell us anything, except rather sadly demonstrating that despite the circumstances of the by-election some 2,000 voters were prepared to vote for  an unsavoury bunch of candidates from the far right.

However the other by-election fought on that day, October 20th, at Witney, Cameron’s seat , was significant in that it saw a substantial swing from the Tories, who lost a quarter of their vote, to the Lib-Dems, who trebled their’s. The Labour vote was marginally down, but the UKIP vote collapsed, in part a reflection of their  leadership crisis, but also perhaps  a move from them back to May’s new Brexit  party. This was a Remain seat, but fairly marginally so, at an estimated 54%.

It  is clear that this vote represented a switch, or at least a one off protest vote( this distinction is not unimportant ) by Tory Remainers to the Lib-Dems along with a few Labour and Green Remainers, but despite their losses to the Lib-Dems the Tories would appear to have avoided what might have been an even worse showing by some movement back to them from UKIP.

But  the Lib-Dems had a much greater treat in store six weeks later on December 1st, when they  won the Richmond Park by-election.This was ostensibly about the decision to go ahead with a third runway at Heathrow, which the sitting Tory, Zac Goldsmith, had previously committed himself to oppose by standing down and fighting as an independent.  However, as none of the other candidates had alternative views, and neither the Tories, Greens or UKIP stood,  the election effectively became a n EU Remain/ Leave contest, with a sub plot of revenge against Goldsmith  for what was widely perceived as a racist campaign by him against Sadiq Khan in the election for the London Mayor. Unlike Witney, there was a strong possibility of defeating Goldsmith, in what was a very strongly Remain constituency, (72%), but probably only by Labour voters voting tactically for the Lib-Dem candidate.This is what happened, with the Labour vote turning out to be smaller than the number of Labour members in the constituency! ( This should come as no surprise. There is a long history there of tactical voting by Labour for the Lib-Dem to keep the Tory out.)

A week later the Sleaford and Hykeham by-election, unlike the other two a predominantly Leave seat, ( 60%), accounting for the Tories retaining virtually all their vote, and UKIP only slightly down( Nuttall had just  been elected as the new leader), but with a heavy 40% loss of the Labour share of the vote to a Lib-Dem share that almost doubled.

It is also worth looking at the council by-elections that have taken place. These are less reliable as an indication of main party support, as local factors and independents play a larger role, but the trends are clear. The Tories, despite the May surge, are still losing slightly, Labour and UKIP are marginally ahead, but the Lib-Dems have increased their vote share by a substantial margin of about  5%, consistent with the parliamentary by-elections and the polls. Labour has done best in London, the West Midlands and the North West.

So what conclusions can we draw from all this? Basically, that there is a substantial Tory and to a lesser extent Labour Remain vote that is prepared to vote tactically for the Lib-Dems over this issue in a by-election, with some of that vote permanently transferring to them. This would explain why the Lib-Dems have not risen hugely in the polls, as the by-elections would indicate, but they have certainly grown in support, from about 7% to 9%,or about a third. However, this is from a very low base, and further growth is dependent on the complex politics of Brexit which are difficult to foresee, to say the least. They obviously hope to put themselves at the head of a Remain campaign, which Labour, because of the position it has taken, correctly in my view, cannot do. However, these are early days. If  the predicted dire economic consequences of Brexit start to become apparent then those who deserted Labour for UKIP or the Tories will probably return from whence they came rather than move to the  Lib-Dems.

But yes, for the reasons given all the results for Labour were dire, much more so than even the poor position in the polls would indicate,  particularly at Sleaford, because of its strong Leave vote.

I am writing this less than a week before the two crucial by-elections at Copeland and Stoke. They were both strong Leave seats (60% and 65% respectively) which does not bode well, but the appeal for support in seats that Labour is defending, unlike the previous by-elections, could be a factor,  coupled with the impossibility of the Lib-Dems making much impression in either seat. Local campaign factors could be important as well. Nuttall in Stoke seems to be in serious difficulties over Hillsborough,  and the Tories over the NHS in Copeland.Let us hope that these are exploited to the full.

Peter Rowlands
February 2017

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