Yesterday voters in the Nottinghamshire constituency of Newark went to the polls in a by-election caused by the resignation of the former Conservative MP Patrick Mercer. This was considered a traditional Conservative seat - though it did switch to Labour for one term in 1997 - and with a majority of 16,000 the party was expected to hold on to it.1
With such a large majority at stake, anything less than a convincing victory would have been highly embarrassing for Cameron, especially as he had publicly nailed his colours to the mast with four visits to the constituency in the run up to polling day. Fortunately for him the Conservatives managed to hold the seat, and the majority, whilst reduced considerably, was still large enough to portray the result as a solid victory. A good result for a governing party less than one year from a general election.
Jumping from a lost deposit in 2010 to second place, UKIP once again caused a by-election stir, though still fell short of gaining their first MP. Even if the entire fall in the Conservative vote went to UKIP, the party must still have taken votes from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, so they are not just a problem for the Tories.
The most interesting question, however, is whether UKIP could have done even better had they put a little more effort into campaigning. Reports from Newark suggest that UKIP was less organised than the main parties and not as efficient at targeting potential supporters, although this may reflect a lack of infrastructure and voting data which the other parties have built up over time. With better resources and training, UKIP’s purple warriors could pose a real threat if there is another by-election in the next eleven months.
Nigel Farage was also noticeably absent for most of the campaign, which seems odd given his usual fondness for the media spotlight. Perhaps he felt that UKIP’s chances of winning the seat - even with a substantial swing from the Conservatives - were slim, and that it was better to stay clear so that any defeat could not be blamed on him.
Once again, this was a disappointing but not disastrous result for Labour. They were unlikely to win this seat in a by-election, and one can hardly blame Miliband for not getting his hopes too high. However, an opposition party which is hoping to form a government after a general election less than twelve months away should be polling higher than 17%. In fact, Labour’s share of the vote actually fell by over four percentage points, continuing the steady decline since 2001. Being beaten into third place by UKIP is hardly a ringing endorsement of Miliband’s approach. So a satisfactory performance, but Labour could, should, and must, do better.
Another terrible result for the Liberal Democrats, with a collapse in the vote share (down seventeen percentage points), a lost deposit, and beaten into sixth place behind an independent and the Green Party. What more can I say? If this trend continues into the general election, the Lib Dems may not be the kingmakers in a hung parliament, as there won’t be enough of them left to give Labour or the Conservatives a majority.
An interesting point suggested by the Politics Weekly podcast2 is whether there was some tactical voting by Liberal Democrats in favour of the Conservatives. After all, if you are a Lib Dem in Newark, you know that even on a good day your party is unlikely to win. In such a situation, you might decide to bite the bullet and vote Conservative with the sole aim of preventing something worse, i.e. a UKIP victory. I’m not entirely convinced by this argument, but it may explain part of the decline in Lib Dem support.
One final point to note is the turnout for this election: at nearly 53% it was down substantially on the 2010 general election (71%), but far higher than South Shields (39%) and Wythenshawe and Sale East (28%). I wonder if there is a causal link between the Lib Dem or Conservative majority and turnout, as Eastleigh also had a similarly high turnout, whereas the other by-elections were in Labour seats?
Of course, a five figure majority can be overturned, as Manchester Withington residents will be aware. ↩