Wythenshawe and Sale East by-election: Labour win easily, Ukip beat Tories to 2nd, Lib Dems lose deposit

by Stephen Tall on February 14, 2014

Labour comfortably won yesterday’s Wythenshawe and Sale East by-election, caused by the sad death of Paul Goggins just five weeks ago. Here are the results:

    Labour: Mike Kane – 13,261 (55%, +11%)
    UKIP: John Bickley – 4,301 (18%, +15%)
    Conservative: Daniel Critchlow – 3,479 (15%, -11%)
    Liberal Democrat: Mary di Mauro – 1,176 (5%, -17%)
    Green: Nigel Woodcock – 748 (3%, +3%)
    BNP: Eddy O’Sullivan – 708 (3%, -1%)
    Monster Raving Loony: Captain Chaplington-Smythe – 288 (1%)
    Turnout: 23,961, 28%

It’s clear there were two winners from the election – though the very low-turn-out (barely one-quarter of the registered electorate bothered to vote in what was a foregone conclusion by-election) should caution us against reading over-much into it.

Labour will have been pleased not only to retain the seat, but to do so with a clear majority of the votes cast. It’s clear that their local ground-game was much sharper than in Bradford West, scene of George Galloway’s triumphant return to the Commons, as evidenced by their increased vote share and the high number of postal votes (more than 40% of the total votes cast).

Ukip were widely expected to beat the Tories into second place, and did so. I’ve seen some suggestions this was a poor result for the Faragistas because second place is no longer good enough. I don’t buy that at all, I’m afraid. To come from a poor fifth place in the space of three weeks with no get-out-the-vote infrastructure in place is impressive. True, it’s not as impressive as was their second place on 25% in last May’s South Shields by-election, triggered by David Miliband’s retirement from Westminster – but that poll was held on the same day as local elections across England, and on a significantly higher turnout.

For both the Tories and the Lib Dems, that the result will be written off as little more than expected is in itself worrying for each of them. The result feeds into the narrative that Ukip is gradually becoming the opposition to Labour in the north of England; a safe English nationalist protest vote; more classless than the Tories, more gritty than the Lib Dems.

The Lib Dems will feel hard done by, losing our deposit for the eighth time this parliament – this time, by just a handful of votes. Our vote share collapsed, by an even greater proportion than did the Tories’, down from a decent third placed 22% to a fourth place 5%. That clearly isn’t a reflection on our candidate, Mary di Mauro, but on the impact on joining the Coalition, especially in northern areas like Greater Manchester.

There’s one (relatively speaking) positive to take from this result. It’s clear there are areas where the Lib Dem vote has utterly collapsed, chiefly in places where we have little on-the-ground strength but have polled decent third places in the past. In Wythenshawe and Sale East, our support slumped to less than a quarter of what it had been in 2010. That does suggest, on some sort of law of averages, that our poll ratings are holding up rather better in those areas where we have an active local party with councillors and MPs.

The downside of this is clear enough: the party is being driven back into its strongholds. At the last general election, there were almost 300 seats – close to half the seats in the UK – where the Lib Dems were either the winners or the runners-up. That meant there was great growth potential for the party. While none of us can be sure how successful the party will be in holding on to its existing seats, we can be pretty sure there will be far fewer seats where we’re competitive in 2015.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.