As expected, the Conservatives held on to Newark in yesterday’s by-election. The party’s ultra-safe majority was reduced, but it remains a safe Tory seat:
Here are my five thoughts on the result.
1. The circumstances in which the by-election was called had no significant impact upon the Tory vote. Former MP Patrick Mercer resigned after he was suspended from the Commons for six months for allegedly asking questions in parliament in return for money. But this did not seem to prompt a backlash among constituents towards Mercer’s party. Something similar took place at the Eastleigh by-election last year. The Liberal Democrats held on to the seat, despite the contest being triggered by the party’s former MP Chris Huhne resigning after admitting lying to police over a speeding offence.
2. Some Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters indulged in a spot of tactical voting. Anecdotal evidence from the three main parties suggests voters sought to minimise Ukip’s likelihood of success. People who would ordinarily have backed Labour or the Lib Dems appear to have voted Conservative, whose candidate was perceived as being the most likely to ensure Nigel Farage’s party missed out on first place.
3. The opinion polls were almost spot on. The three polls conducted in Newark ahead of the election predicted Ukip’s % share of the vote would be 27, 28 and 27. It turned out to be 26. The Tories were forecast to get variously 42, 36 and 42; they ended up with 45. Labour’s vote was slightly over-estimated: the polls suggested 20, 27 and 22, when the party actually got 18. But the Lib Dems’ paltry score was foreshadowed neatly in the polls, which showed the party’s share dwindling sequentially from 6% two weeks ago to 4% two days ago.
4. It’s foolhardy to draw parallels between by-election results and previous general elections. Tory politicians and commentators have been describing the Newark result as “shattering” for Labour, because the party came third in a seat they held between 1997 and 2001. Well, it’s true Newark was once a Labour constituency. But that was 13 years ago, since when the boundaries have been redrawn, Labour has been in and out of government, and a fourth political party has emerged in the UK to take chunks of votes at by-elections. For a campaign to which Labour devoted little time or resources, in a constituency Ed Miliband visited just once, an 18% share is pretty good – especially if some of the party’s supporters decided to “lend” their votes to the Tories.
5. The result tells us almost nothing about what could happen in next year’s general election. Just as opinion polls are snapshots and not predictions, so it is with by-elections. A lot will happen between now and next May to affect the fortunes of all the parties. But they could learn some useful lessons about how to run campaigns in high-profile constituencies (which the Tories did well) and how to manage expectations (which Ukip did badly).
Newark by-election: the result in full
Robert Jenrick (Conservative) 17,431 (45.03%, -8.82)
Roger Helmer (Ukip) 10,028 (25.91%, +22.09)
Michael Payne (Labour) 6,842 (17.68%, -4.65)
Paul Baggaley (Independent) 1,891 (4.89%)
David Kirwan (Green) 1,057 (2.73%)
David Watts (Liberal Democrat) 1,004 (2.59%, -17.41)
Nick The Flying Brick (Monster Raving Loony) 168 (0.43%)
Andy Hayes (Independent) 117 (0.30%)
David Bishop (Bus-Pass Elvis) 87 (0.22%)
Dick Rodgers (Stop Banks) 64 (0.17%)
Lee Woods (Patriotic Socialist) 18 (0.05%)
There was a 15.46% swing from Conservative to Ukip. The turnout was 38,707 (52.67%, -18.69).