Yesterday’s three by-elections are, as by-elections go, interesting. They point, first of all, to widespread electoral disengagement. Even by traditional by-election standards, turn-outs were low – which confirms the pattern of this parliament. Even in by-elections which were thought to be really significant, like Corby (turn-out 45 per cent), most people don’t turn out. The figure for Rotherham (34 per cent) – which was surrounded by publicity – is telling.
The results for Labour, whatever we think of the turn-out, were good. The possibility of a real upset, like Respect’s victory in West Bradford in April, was always on the cards. Yet the Labour vote rose everywhere, including Rotherham (to my surprise), even though there was a notional swing to UKIP. Given the forced resignation of Rotherham’s former Labour MP and the behaviour of the Rotherham Council towards UKIP-minded foster parents, it could have been much worse. The reverse is true for UKIP. They did quite well in Rotherham, but could have done better. They polled, however, pretty poorly elsewhere. As a protest party with a programme (or non-programme) designed to attract any voters with a grievance they have not been as effective as the Lib Dems were in their heyday. And their electorate, ageing and white, is not an expanding one.
The results for the Lib Dems were terrible. They came eighth in Rotherham, third in Middlesbrough and fourth in Croydon North. They lost their deposits in Rotherham and Croydon. In opposition their crucial role was as a protest party, often based on local resentments; or supported by ex-Labour voters who had given up on their own party. As a result they won seats with a very mixed social profile. They can no longer play that role and it is hard to see at the moment how someone like Simon Hughes can hold his predominantly working-class seat (Bermondsey) at the next election. The Lib Dem vote will probably hold up better in middle-class seats but these results do suggest how difficult it will be for them to devise a viable way to fight the next general election.
The results for the Conservatives were not much better. Indeed, I cannot remember such a bad set of results for them. As we would expect their vote help up moderately well in Croydon but collapsed in Rotherham and Middlesbrough. In Rotherham they finished fifth, behind UKIP, the BNP and Respect as well as Labour. This points to the party’s decay in ex-industrial seats in the North and suggests that they will be lucky to hold onto the gains they made there in the last election.
Overall the three by-elections present a mixed picture of the present mood of the English electorate. Allegiances are clearly fluid, and could float off anywhere. The tendency for people’s attachment to the major parties to weaken has continued and possibly accelerated. But it would wrong to exaggerate the fluidity. The Labour vote, apart from George Galloway’s one off in West Bradford, has not continued to fragment, and much of the new floating vote is comprised of disoriented Lib Dems. Respect clearly can only succeed in very specific circumstances. The same is true of the Greens, who didn’t stand in Rotherham or Middlesbrough and came fifth in Croydon. And much of yesterday’s UKIP vote will presumably float back to wherever it came from at the next general election. Even so, UKIP will damage the Conservatives unless the political environment changes markedly. But if the Tories adopt UKIP’s rhetoric and ‘policies’ they will lose much of their business support, which could be fatal.