South Shields by-election: Labour hold solid, Ukip surge, Tories fall and Lib Dems… plummet to 7th. Ouch.

by Stephen Tall on May 3, 2013

polling dayThe South Shields by-election — triggered by David Miliband’s exit from British political life — has resulted in a solid hold for Labour, which polled just over half the vote, only fractionally down on its 2010 position.

But it’s Ukip which has most to celebrate: in a seat they haven’t contested since 2001, they stormed to a strong second, winning almost one-quarter of the vote.

The Tories lost almost half their vote, slipping to third. Meanwhile the Lib Dems’ valiant Hugh Annand lost his deposit, trailing in seventh place behind the BNP.

Full result below:

    Labour Emma Lewell-Buck 12,493 (50.4%, -1.6%)
    UKIP Richard Elvin 5,988 (24.2%, N/A)
    Conservative Karen Allen 2,857 (11.5%, -10.1%)
    Independent Ahmed Khan 1,331 (5.4%, N/A)
    Independent Socialist Party Phil Brown 750 (3.0%, N/A)
    BNP Lady Dorothy MacBeth Brookes 711 (2.9%, -3.6%)
    Liberal Democrat Hugh Annand 352 (1.4%, -12.8%)
    Monster Raving Loony Alan “Howling Laud” Hope 197 (0.8%, N/A)
    Independent Thomas Darwood 57 (0.2%, N/A)
    Majority 6,505 (26.3%, -4.1%)
    Turnout 24,780 (39.3%, -18.4%)

The BBC reports Hugh’s post-result comments:

… Hugh Annand said the result was “extremely disappointing but perhaps not surprising” given that the Lib Dems were in government and having to take tough decisions. He told the BBC that some supporters had not adjusted to the degree of compromise required in coalition and those wishing to register a protest vote had gone elsewhere. “We have disappointed and angered some people who have supported us in the past,” he said.

Which seems about right… The party says it fought a “small but spirited” campaign in South Shields, understandably focusing its scarce resources on the local elections also taking place yesterday.

Lib Dems have become almost innoculated in the course of this parliament to such dire by-election results in areas where we don’t expect to win. We can of course point to Labour’s performance in the 1997 Winchester by-election for some consolation: their vote dropped to just 1.7% from 10.5%. And to Henley in 2008, when Labour lost their deposit and came fifth, behind the Greens and BNP. And also to Hamilton South in 1999, where the Lib Dems dropped to sixth place, the year before entering the Scottish government.

But it’s salutary to remember that, if this by-election had been fought 10 years ago, it would have been the Lib Dems likely pushing Labour hard, as we successfully did in Brent East (2003) and Leicester South (2004), and almost-successfully managed in Hartlepool and Birmingham Hodge Hill (both 2004).

What’s the difference? Well, back then we were an opposition party with a USP (opposition to the war in Iraq) and regarded by voters as a safe outlet for a protest vote. Now we’re in government with the Tories at a time of economic decline.

Meanwhile Ukip is enjoying its turn in the sun as an opposition party with a USP (stop-the-world-I-want-to-get-off-pull-up-the-drawbridge-nothing-against-them-personally-but-we’re-full-and-another-thing-health-and-safety-some-of-my-best-friends-are–all-the-parties-are-the-same-I’d-emigrate-if-I-could) and regarded by voters as a safe outlet for a protest vote.

Of course when the Lib Dems did well in by-elections in days gone by, the right-wing press dismissed it as a protest vote that meant nothing. Apparently now Ukip are doing it, the press thinks we should really sit up and take notice. Just saying…

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.