The byelection results are great for Labour, but David Cameron can expect renewed grumbling in his ranks, while the Lib Dems were caught napping.
Last night’s byelections were unambiguous good news for Gordon Brown and proof that the “Brown bounce” in Labour’s fortunes picked up in opinion polls is based on reality. Not only did Labour hold both seats with comfortable majorities, but the detail of the results is also encouraging for the new prime minister.
It is normal for a government party to shed some votes in seats it has to defend in byelections, but the recent record of the Labour party has been woeful. In three byelections in the 2001-05 parliament the party’s vote share fell by more than 25 percentage points, and the result in Dunfermline in 2006 (down 17.4%) was almost as bad. In Sedgefield Phil Wilson’s vote share dropped by 14.1% compared with Tony Blair‘s impressive result in 2005, which while a considerable drop was easily absorbed in such a safe seat. But the real triumph was Ealing Southall, where Virendra Sharma‘s vote share was only 7.3% down on what Labour won in 2005. This was the smallest drop in any seat Labour has defended in a byelection since Tony Blair came to power in 1997.
Another aspect of the results that will please Gordon Brown is the lack of anti-Labour tactical momentum in the byelections. Voters did not line up behind the candidate best placed to defeat Labour and although the Liberal Democrats came second and increased their vote in both seats, they did not succeed in squeezing the Tory vote even in Sedgefield.
Part of the reason for the mediocre Lib Dem results in both seats was the speed with which the byelections were called. Labour’s calculation, which was vindicated, was that the longer the seat remained vacant the more chance the famous Lib Dem byelection machine would have to swamp the constituency with leaflets and establish a clear Lib Dem v Labour dynamic. By calling them quickly, Labour prevented the Lib Dems from building up momentum. In Sedgefield, a predictable byelection given that Tony Blair’s career plans after Downing Street could have been anticipated, the Lib Dems were caught napping by failing to stand a full slate of candidates to work the seat in the local government elections in May. Some of the disaffected protest vote ended up with the BNP, whose candidate Andrew Spence had led the direct action campaign against fuel taxation in 2000 and found a natural home in the party.
The Southall result in particular was a blow to David Cameron, who had staked a lot on the result. He was prominent in the campaign, even appearing on the ballot paper (Tony Lit was the candidate of “David Cameron’s Conservatives”). Southall was an experiment in the Conservatives’ strategy of trying to appeal to previously barren areas in multicultural urban England, with a candidate who made up for in style what he lacked in experience. Cameron hoped to demonstrate that his inclusive, moderate and glitzy approach was paying off. In all this, the Conservatives failed and Cameron can expect a renewed round of grumbling in his ranks. Brown, meanwhile, can start the summer with the satisfaction of having reversed what looked like a serious tailspin in Labour’s midterm election fortunes.