Political types tend to read way too much into by-election results. My all time favourite was a Labour pundit saying in the aftermath of the 2013 Eastleigh by-election that Labour were definitely going to win the 2015 general election because their 0.2% increase in vote share (to 9.8%) compared to 2010 demonstrated the unstoppable momentum of Ed Miliband’s journey into Number 10.
Yet they can still be interesting. I’ll try and examine the result of yesterday’s by-election in as level-headed a way as I can.
For a start, I think Labour should be slightly worried about the result – but only slightly worried. Their vote share went down by almost 13% and the Tories, despite their vote share decreasing as well, managed to narrow the gap and came within 2,000 votes of winning what has been a fairly safe Labour seat for a long time, albeit on a terrible turnout. At this point, with the Conservatives having been in power for nine years and flailing badly under a terrible leader, Labour should have romped home this morning. That they didn’t suggests they shouldn’t be so confident of winning any snap general election. By the same token, they seem relatively safe from losing a lot of voters to smaller left-wing parties for the time being, which I’ll come onto briefly.
The Tories, particularly given the chaotic Westminster backdrop to the by-election, have the most reasons to be cheerful. In a by-election held in a safe Labour seat, when the Tory leadership has given both Remainers and Leavers ample reasons to give them a pie in the face, the Tories managed to retain their vote share to an impressive degree. Seemingly – and I’ve heard this from people who canvassed on the doorstep – both pro and anti-Brexit Tory voters were still willing to come out and vote for the party. If they can get 31.5% in Newport with the parliamentary party tearing chunks out of one another in the media, the government having brought the country to the edge of an existential crisis and Theresa May still at the helm, having both said she’ll leave and yet not really looking like leaving anytime soon, what could the Tories achieve nationwide with a decent leader? I know, what decent leader are you possibly referring to and all that, but still.
People are trying to big up the increase in the UKIP vote, but again, considering the backdrop and that it was a by election, a free shot for right-wing Leavers to send a message to the Conservative party, it was a pretty pathetic showing. I think this has less to do with Leavers being upset with the Conservative party than it does with UKIP just being dead as a political force. They have just gone way too far to the right, and Tory Leavers still seem keen to cling to the party they know rather than vote for the Tommy Robinson brigade, regardless of how badly Brexit is being handled.
The Lib Dems and the Green should feel disappointed. It would have been interesting to see how Change UK would have done had they run – I suspect they would have done better than the Lib Dems and Greens combined if those two had stood out of the way, which would have been pretty telling. Again, much like the UKIP/Tory dynamic, here was a chance for Remainers to send Corbyn a message by voting either LD or Green and very few took that up. It suggests the Greens are showing no level of upsurge that would translate into any seats beyond Brighton Pavillion in a snap election, and that the Lib Dems would probably gain a few and lose a few, staying pretty much where they have been since 2015.
Whatever those of us who would like to see both the Tories and Labour punished for picking lousy leaders and generally being useless over the last couple of years yearn for, truth is that voters still seem to mostly be sticking to the big two. That may start to slip over the next couple of years, and I think a large split in either of the two parties could cause it to shift, possibly dramatically, but until/unless that happens, the duopoly seems likely to endure for a while yet.