The stats from last night’s byelections make miserable reading for both the big parties.
Both of last night’s byelections were bad for the Labour party, but Blaenau Gwent was absolutely appalling. Trish Law’s election for the Welsh assembly seat was perhaps to be expected, but Dai Davies ended up winning a surprisingly comfortable majority for the Westminster seat. Labour’s share of the vote had increased only a little (1.7 percentage points in the assembly vote; 4.7 points for Westminster) since Peter Law’s landslide in the 2005 general election. That result can no longer be written off as a flash in the pan caused by the dispute over Labour’s all-women shortlist, or a personal vote for an established incumbent. Labour have occasionally lost safe south Wales seats before in unusual circumstances, like Merthyr Tydfil in 1970 or Islwyn in 1999, but the common thread is that Labour has always won the seat back at the next opportunity. Blaenau Gwent is the first time since 1918 that any of the valleys seats has rejected Labour twice in a row.
Blaenau Gwent was a defeat for New Labour rather than Labour values. Dai Davies’s victory speech focused on the four principles of socialism, trade unionism, Christianity and family – he is an unashamed old Labour socialist. His language of socialism and “the people” does not mean, as it might in London, trendy cultural politics or tabloid populism – it reflects a community in which the Labour party was first nurtured and which now feels neglected, even despised, by the government. New Labour no longer commands the loyalty of many of the voters it won over in the 1990s (as the English local elections showed), and it also risks permanently alienating the loyalty of the heartland voters who have stuck with Labour through all the party’s previous bad times.
Labour also collapsed in Bromley and Chislehurst, but that was only to be expected in an area where the party had always been weak and lacking in the sort of presence in the community that can sustain a vote. In the later stages of the campaign, as the Liberal Democrats closed in on the Conservatives, tactical votes bled away and Labour came in an undignified fourth, behind UKIP. At least they retained their deposit.
For the Conservatives, Bromley was extremely uncomfortable. A slump in the party’s share of the vote from 51% to 40% (and a majority of only 633 votes) is bad news. Conservative chatter at the start of the campaign was about whether they would get to 60% or not, but at the end people were saying things like “a win is a win”. An opposition party on the march should be getting better results than this in their core area. The Conservative share of the vote increased in every seat they defended between 1974 and 1979, the last time they went from opposition to government.
The Tories, including their candidate Bob Neill, have been extremely bitter about the Liberal Democrats’ campaign, which was sometimes pretty strong and personal. Over 10 years ago a bruising byelection in Littleborough and Saddleworth in which Labour used rough tactics against the Lib Dems threatened to strain relations between those two parties. Bromley may well set back the cause of Conservative-Lib Dem rapprochement by increasing the level of bitterness (and, let’s face it, justified fear) that Conservative members and activists feel about the other party. It would be most ironic if the lasting legacy of Bromley was that it made it more difficult for the opposition parties to combine and displace Labour if the next election results in a hung parliament.