Newark by-election: Tories win well, Ukip falls short, Labour dips, Lib Dems collapse

by Stephen Tall on June 6, 2014

Phot @bbcalexforsyth newark by-electionA lot of politics is about momentum. At the moment it’s the Tories who have it. Not quite the Big Mo, but a Moderate Mo that’s growing.

Here are the results of last night’s Newark by-election:

    Robert Jenrick (Con) 17,431 (45.03%, -8.82%)
    Roger Helmer (UKIP) 10,028 (25.91%, +22.09%)
    Michael Payne (Lab) 6,842 (17.68%, -4.65%)
    Paul Baggaley (Ind) 1,891 (4.89%)
    David Kirwan (Green) 1,057 (2.73%)
    David Watts (LD) 1,004 (2.59%, -17.41%)

    15.46% swing Con to UKIP
    Electorate 73,486; Turnout 38,707 (52.67%, -18.69%)

The Tory vote declined a bit and the Ukip vote grew a lot. The headline swing of over 15% from Tories to Ukip might suggest the Tories should be downcast, worried. They won’t be. Their vote-share held up pretty well considering they’re in government.

At least as importantly, it enthused the party. Activists turned up by the coach load. Tory MPs turned out in their droves – 273 in total, a hundred of them on polling day itself. Of course, the Tories cannot put in anything like that effort on a general election day – some £250,000 was apparently lavished on the campaign – just as the Lib Dems wouldn’t be able to repeat our Eastleigh showing. But it points to a party optimistic about its chances and enthusiastic about the election to come.

Ukip will say they’re happy with their second place – and why not? It’s another second place, another vote surge. But not even Nigel Farage can pretend this was an earthquake. Having unwisely allowed the media to run with the idea he’d parachute in as candidate, his decision not to jump showed Ukip’s lack of confidence they could storm to victory. So it proved.

Wise Ukip heads will worry what the result means for the party’s prospects of gaining even one seat at the next general election. To date, the party has yet to poll over 30% in a parliamentary by-election, the minimum threshold they’re likely to need to win a seat. Its best performance was in Eastleigh, where it’s probably not a coincidence their candidate, Diane James, was a sensible enough-sounding woman.

Its decision to field Roger Helmer, a male candidate who plays up to Ukip’s sexist, homophobic, xenophobic stereotype, led to a large differential vote: men were more than twice as likely as women to vote Ukip, 37% v 17%, according to the final Survation poll. It’s all very well having the protest vote support of a highly motivated 20-25% of the electorate; but it’s unlikely to yield seats in a first-past-the-post system.

There is anecdotal evidence that Ukip, the new protest vote party, has generated its own protest vote: both Labour and Lib Dem canvassers reported voters saying they would hold their noses and vote Tory to make sure Nigel Farage was thwarted. Ironically, then, the Tories may be benefiting, especially if, by comparison at least, the Tories suddenly seem the more moderate, less toxic, right-wing party.

Labour did not expect to win. That in itself tells its own story. As election expert Professor John Curtice pointed out last night:

“The truth is that they [Labour] should be on tenterhooks as to whether they will win the seat. That swing that they would need, it is less than the Labour Party achieved in Norwich, less than the Conservatives achieved in Norwich in the last Parliament, less than Labour achieved in Dudley West, Wirrel South just before they won the 1997 election. When oppositions look as though they are on course for government, the kind of swing that is required for Labour to win has been relatively common. To that extent, we have to ask ourselves, why is it we are not asking the question, could Labour win this? It is all of a piece, as a result of the recent elections, Labour do not have the enthusiasm and depth of support in the electorate that make them look like an alternative government.”

And then there’s the Lib Dems… It was another dire night, to cap a dire fortnight. We didn’t just lose our deposit, we came sixth. Our vote collapsed. Four years ago, 10,246 Newark voters marked a ‘X’ beside the Lib Dem box. Yesterday, just 1,004 did so. In contrast to the Tories, not a single Lib Dem MP turned up to campaign. To be fair, they’re doubtless all knackered after a gruelling election period: but if our MPs couldn’t be persuaded to show up for our candidate why should we be surprised if the voters didn’t?

Much credit to our candidate, David Watts, who did his best in what was clearly a tricky campaign. Commenting on the result last night, David was phlegamtic: “Well it wasn’t a good result, but smaller parties often get squeezed in by-elections and that’s what’s happened to us here. We knew, from talking to people today, that a lot of our voters had transferred to vote against UKIP to make sure UKIP didn’t get elected and some have clearly gone to Paul’s [Independent candidate Paul Baggaley] campaign on the hospital which is a very important campaign.”

This is all true, and it would be unwise to read over-much into a by-election like Newark. The Lib Dems will do much better in those seats where we have an MP and/or an active campaign. But, as I said at the start, politics is about momentum. Our Coalition partners have it. We don’t. Time’s running out to re-gain it.

Photo tweeted by @AlexForsythBBC

* 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.