What to make of the by-elections?

by Stephen Tall on July 18, 2007

I’m not the greatest fan of Parliamentary by-elections. They provide, almost invariably, an unedifying political spectacle in which fairness, objectivity and the public become by-standers to the main event. That turnout is usually low – despite the avalanche of leaflets, and babble of mob-handed canvassers – highlights the gulf between the amped-up interest of we politicos, and the damped-down disinterest of the voters.

However, they remain significant events – serious tests not only of the popularity of political parties, but also of their campaigning effectiveness. To disregard them would be even more foolish than to over-egg their wider significance. What, then, is at stake for the three main parties at Ealing Southall and Sedgefield?

Labour

In a perverse way, Labour can afford to be most relaxed about these by-elections. Why? Because they have a ready-made excuse – all governments suffer mid-term setbacks. It’s a tired, clichéd, and not wholly accurate excuse. But there is enough of a grain of truth in it to get Labour off-the-hook. Unless, that is, their doomsday scenario occurs, and they were to lose both by-elections… in which case it’s a disaster which will flatten the ‘Brown bounce’. More likely, Labour will hold one or perhaps both, albeit with slashed majorities. They can live with that – though that they feel able to should give them serious pause for thought.

Lib Dem

As the acknowledged by-election specialists, the Lib Dems are probably most tense for two reasons. First, because expectations of our performance are commensurately higher. In one sense this is healthy – it shows party activists are still enthused enough to mount a vigorous campaign, and that the media must acknowledge (however much it pains them) that the Lib Dems are not going to disappear simply so that lazy hacks can indulge their love of old-school two-party politics.

And, secondly, because our performance is being viewed through the prism of Ming Campbell’s leadership. Anything that falls short of expectations – however high and unreasonable those expectations might be – may be portrayed as a disappointment, and increase still further the media speculation which has plagued Ming’s 18-month tenure.

A victory in either/both Ealing Southall and/or Sedgefield should be more than sufficient to calm any party nerves, and to shore up Ming’s position. (Though given the commentariat appears to have made up their mind about Ming it’s doubtful that they would accept any evidence to the contrary.) A good result would be the Lib Dems running Labour close in Ealing Southall, and getting a substantial swing in Sedgefield to leap-frog the Tories into second. A poor result would be if the Lib Dems slip back into third in Ealing Southall, and cannot progress in Sedgefield.

The Tories

They, too, will be tense – they have thrown a hell of a lot of resources at Ealing Southall in particular, and anything less than a good second place will be a disappointment. David Cameron’s position is, of course, secure for the moment – he is, after all, more popular than his party. However, a failure to make real progress in this seat will trigger a few concerns, even among loyal Cameroons, that the party is still in no fit state for a general election campaign. And among the not-so-loyal-Cameroons, we might expect to hear some mutterings that Mr Cameron’s personal choice of candidate – famously photographed beaming alongside Tony Blair only last month, and a Tory member for only a few weeks – exemplifies the style-over-substance trait which risks becoming his defining characteristic in the public mind.

Clearly if the Tories win Ealing Southall it shows they’re back in business, at least in the south of England. They could be satisfied with a second place, leap-frogging the Lib Dems. If they remain in third place, it will be a poor investment on their effort.

Their expectations for Sedgefield appear much lower – they would, I suspect, be ecstatic if they held onto second place. If they slip to third, behind the Lib Dems, they will shrug it off. That in itself says much about the national ambitions of the Tory party today.