Today’s by-election in Newark might be the last concrete indication of how the country will vote in the general election in May 2015. By-elections can show you which way the country is leaning, but on this occasion the result is unlikely to tell us a huge amount.
By-elections are very different from general elections. They have a short time frame and a high expense limit of £100,000, compared to £30,000 per seat for general elections. They can be more heavily influenced by local issues. And a well-oiled local party machine can make all the difference.
Previous by-elections have been a chance for voters to express dissatisfaction with the government of the day or indicators of what is to come, and a definitive loss can make an incumbent Prime Minister seem defeated before the general election comes around. From 1992-1997, the Conservatives lost all 18 by elections, with a net loss of eight MPs. The final campaign was in Wirral South, just two months before the general election. The seat went to Labour with a 17.2% swing, a decent indicator of what was to come.
This was less true for the Labour government during the 2005-2010 Parliament, but they still lost four of the eight by-elections in Labour-held constituencies. As for this Parliament, despite 18 by-elections, only one has been for a Tory-held seat – Corby, which was lost to Labour in 2012.
Labour stand little chance in Newark, with senior party staffers initially arguing they shouldn‘t expend too much time or money on the constituency. This has changed somewhat since the European results, but it still seems Labour are not canvassing to win, but rather to prevent the media backlash they would face if they got an appallingly low percentage of vote.
The major threat is Ukip. The party managed its strongest European election performance nationwide in the East Midlands, attracting 32% of the vote. In Newark itself they beat the Conservatives by 386 votes (albeit with different seat boundaries).
But a Conservative hold still looks likely. A Sun/Survation poll has put the Tories on 36% in Newark, to Ukip’s 28% and Labour’s 27%. However, this is still a significant drop from the solid 54% they managed in 2010, and the party are certainly not taking the campaign lightly. As well as significant central support, the Conservatives have had their candidate Robert Jenrick in place since November, and he will have canvassed a couple of thousand electors since then.
As for lessons to be drawn, this probably won’t be definitive. But perhaps with Conservative hold with reduced majority, Ukip surge but no breakthrough, lacklustre Labour showing and Liberal Democrats nowhere to be seen, this might be a sign of things to come.
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