"Byelections aren't quite what they used to be?" Or are they now having a renaissance?

For those who remember the days of Vincent Hanna's entertaining news reports in the 1980s from deep within byelection campaigns, a parliamentary by-election could seriously change the political climate. Here are a few examples:

  • Fermanagh and South Tyrone (1981) - Bobby Sands and the hunger strikers
  • Croydon North-West (1981) - Liberal Bill Pitt didn't like SDP champagne on his suit
  • Crosby (1981) - Shirley Williams becomes the first Member of Parliament elected under the SDP name.
  • Glasgow Hillhead (1982) - The weturn of "Woy" (Roy Jenkins)
  • Beaconsfield (1982) - Falklands Factor and who is that Labour candidate?
  • Mitcham and Morden (1982) - Tory gain off Labour turned SDP
  • Birmingham Northfield (1982) - Labour's first gain for a decade
  • Bermondsey (1983) - Michael Foot (Labour leader) under threat
  • Darlington (1983) - Michael Foot saved
  • Chesterfield (1984) - Tony Benn back
  • Brecon and Radnor (1985) - Labour narrowly miss their chance
  • Fulham (1986) - Nick Raynsford (Labour) wins
  • Ryedale (1986) - SDP / Liberal Alliance restore credibility
  • Greenwich (1987) - Last SDP victory
  • Glasgow Govan (1988) - The "Feeble 50" beaten by the SNP
  • Bootle (1990) - SDP beaten by the loonies and shut down
  • Eastbourne (1990) - Liberal Democrats start recovery
  • Bradford North (1990) - Tories come third, Mrs Thatcher challenged
  • Ribble Valley (1991) - Poll Tax receives last rites
  • Langbaurgh (1991) - Dr Ashok Kumar wins the seat for Labour
  • Newbury (1993) - The verdict on Chancellor Norman Lamont
  • Eastleigh (1994) - Tories tumble from first to third
  • Dudley West (1994) - The Blair factor kicks in
  • Littleborough and Saddleworth (1995) - "Soft on drugs, high on taxes"
  • South East Staffordshire (1996) - Labour victory
  • Wirral South (1997) - Precursor to a Labour landslide

Since then byelections seemed to follow the way of turnout at general elections: a great loss of interest. Brent East (2003) and Leicester South (2004) showed perhaps a small flurry round the Iraq War, but they did not generate a massive Lib Dem surge. What was most interesting about both those results was how low the Lib Dem swing was compared to their great victories of the past. My own theory is that just as we have a "long-tail" for books and music, we now have it for political parties with much lower entry costs to establish a smaller party with a website and a membership from 500 to 2,000. Just plot the parties vote on a graph with two axes showing "share of vote" and "number of parties" to see what I mean.

Proportional representation elections have also encouraged at least some of the smaller parties to sustain themselves and certainly the Greens, UKIP, BNP, Respect (Renewal) and the Christian Party/Alliance look like being regular fixtures on the political landscape for some time to come. The extra credibility these parties have gathered seems to mean protest voters who in the last few days of a campaign used to go Lib Dem are now more likely to vote elsewhere.

The other problem is that the move from an era without the internet and with five TV channels to a multimedia present means that many voters would barely notice a byelection result, even if they lived in the next door constituency.

However, with a possible change of government being contemplated, byelections seem to have become a little more exciting again:

  • Crewe and Nantwich - The "Toffs" are "on your side"
  • Henley - Lord Rennard's machine stalled for the Liberal Democrats
  • Haltemprice and Howden - all that is missing is Lord Buckethead!
  • Glasgow East - SNP claim "Life expectancy is lower than the Gaza Strip" whilst the Tories modernise Tebbit to say: "Get on your exercise bike"

The next few weeks by-elections should provide us with a contrast:

Haltemprice and Howden

What some saw either as a principled stand or a foolhardy waste of public money will certainly add a bit of colour to byelection history. Whilst David Davis is likely to win, the main electoral question is who will become runner up? Working on my usual rule of thumb of a second place Lib Dem vote splitting two thirds Labour and one third Conservative, I would estimate that the seat splits 62-38 Tory/Anti-Tory. As a result will the Green Party pick up quite a few Lib Dem and Labour votes to secure their best ever percentage vote? Either that, or one of the more credible Independents or possibly the National Front are the other candidates who may do well. In some ways the most important result will be the turnout. Did David Davis make the public feel the issue of 42 days was important enough to vote?

Glasgow East

Will Labour get a "Glasgow Kiss" from the SNP? Certainly it looks like a close battle between the two main contenders. As I implied above it is interesting to note that the poor health of the residents of the constituency seems to have become the issue. The SNP are blaming the government for neglecting the constituency, whilst Tories seem to demand more responsibility from those who live shorter lives! Labour's candidate will indeed be a "busy woman", living down her calls for other people to resign on securing "two jobs". For those who like the minutiae of politics "the battle for 6th place" between former SSP MSP Frances Curran and the Tommy Sheridan Solidarity faction should generate enough internet amusement as the split in English Respect.

Labour would hold the seat on a 17.5% Crewe swing, however both the SNP and Lib Dems tend to have a greater reach than the Tories in a byelection, so the 22% required to win here is clearly possible as the Labour campaign have acknowledged. Most media attention will focus on the future of the Prime Minister. Will a coup really occur the weekend after when Labour's National Policy Forum will be negotiating union demands for more employment legislation with the red-herring of the restoration of secondary action being used to claw out extra rights for individual workers? Will that be the weekend, when only a small number of MPs are present at the meeting? Is the run up to Party Conference for Brown, like Blair before him, probably the point where things come to a head? Probably best to keep a track of Tom Watson's movements in the coming weeks.

Of course if Labour win, the political media pack will actually be able to take a proper break and finish off reading that newly bought copy of "Nudge" at their Tuscan villas!

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