Saturday, December 10, 2016

Lessons from recent by-elections

Recently, an important by-election was held to select a new Member of Parliament, following the resignation of a sitting Conservative MP, who was dissatisfied with Gov't policy. The result told us much about the current state of party politics at Westminster. And No, I'm not referring to Richmond Park, which told us very little, beyond that MPs who resign and cause what is seen as an unnecessary be-election as well as deserting their party usually lose - irrespective of the honourable nature of the resignation. I am referring to the Sleaford and North Hykeham by-election last Thursday when Caroline Johnson was elected as the new Conservative MP. Despite it being a far more significant result than that in Richmond Park, it was almost completely ignored by the media. I'm not keen on commenting on political party matters, because there is such danger that it pollutes with partisanship the factual assessment. But this was an important result on the political barometer.

So let's consider what happened in Sleaford, setting it against the backdrop of typical by-election results. Usually, the party in power loses ground in by-elections. Usually, support swings behind the party most likely to defeat the party in power. You would expect this 'normal' pattern to be reinforced when the sitting Gov't MP has resigned with the intention of inflicting damage on the governing party he was previously a member of. But none of this happened. Caroline Johnson was returned with an astonishingly high vote, bearing in mind the context. UKIP, the party thought most likely to offer challenge actually lost ground. Labour, the official opposition collapsed back into 4th place. (Not quite as bad as Richmond Park where Labour had less votes than it has party members!!). And this extraordinarily good result for the Conservative Party was accompanied by an opinion poll which showed Labour polling at historically low levels. Richmond Park may have excited our London-centric media, and filled our newspapers, but it was the Sleaford result that was the bigger story. Labour is in a desperate place.

Now you might think, that I as a Conservative MP would be entirely content with this position. But strangely I am not. British politics is constructed around an adversarial system. It needs an effective opposition. Currently Labour is not providing that. It's not healthy for the body politic. Some of the very good Labour MPs that I know are in despair. And it's not improving. That is the story of recent by-elections.

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