Labour’s trouncing in Oxfordshire, and the less-reported loss in Blackpool, is a definite indication of a Conservative future
Henley was never going to be a good result for Labour, but the outcome was horrific beyond imagination. The lost deposit was perhaps predictable, but the embarrassment of coming behind the Greens was not, and the abject humiliation of limping in behind the BNP in this affluent home counties seat was an entirely unexpected blow. At least, at 3.1%, Labour’s share of the vote in Henley was not the worst ever – the Isle of Wight (1983), Newbury (1993) and Winchester (1997) have all seen Labour sink lower.
In previous byelections in safe Conservative seats there has often been a swing to the Liberal Democrats. In 2006, Bromley & Chislehurst came within 633 votes of an astonishing upset, with a 14% swing to the Lib Dems, and in 2000 the Tories lost Romsey. One might have expected a significant swing to the Lib Dems in Henley and a reduced Conservative majority, but there was actually a small net swing from Lib Dem to Conservative. The turnout was relatively high for a safe seat by-election at 50% (10 points higher than in Bromley). The pro-Tory swing and robust turnout are, if anything, more remarkable and worrying for Labour than the crash in the party’s own vote. It shows that the Conservative vote is more solid and committed than it has been for many years. This should worry Labour greatly, and also send a shiver of alarm through the many vulnerable Lib Dem MPs in the south of England.
There was another less conspicuous byelection last night, in the Park ward of Blackpool, where the Conservatives scored a gain from Labour on a big swing even since the May 2007 elections when Labour polled very poorly in the town. This ward forms part of the marginal Blackpool North and Cleveleys seat, number 80 on the Conservative target list, and is generally one of Labour’s better areas of the constituency. Yesterday’s byelection confirmed the message of Henley that the Tories are on the march.