Why Are the Conservatives So Bad at By-Elections?
The Conservatives have recovered ground strongly in local elections, in every round of local elections since 1997. Even their opinion poll ratings gradually rose from the disastrous levels of the mid-nineties, after 1997, and rose sharply following David Cameronâ€™s election as Leader. In 2005, they managed to claw back 33 Parliamentary seats, which at least provides a platform for fighting the next election. Yet, in Parliamentary by-elections, their performance has never really recovered from the dreadful years of 1993-1997.
The Conservatives fought 15 comparable by-elections in the 1997-2001 Parliament and saw their vote drop by 0.6% on average. During 2001-2005, they fought six and saw their vote drop by 4.1% on average, and since 2005, they have fought seven, and seen their vote fall by 0.7% on average. This dismal performance has continued even despite markedly improved opinion poll ratings (and markedly worse opinion poll rating for the Liberal Democrats) after David Cameron became leader.
Labourâ€™s performance in by-elections has been nothing to write home about, since 1997, but one generally discounts a poor performance for an incumbent government, in such contests. The real winners have of course been the Liberal Democrats, whose vote rose on average by 4% in 1997 â€“2001 (and by 6% in English contests), 15.7% on average in 2001-05, and by 6.9% since 2005.
Having taken part in several by-election contests, I have noticed no shortage of volunteers, enthusiasm, or finance, on the Conservative side. Yet, somehow, every campaign always seems to amount to much less than the sum of its parts , and unlike the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives are quite unable to persuade voters from all political backgrounds to vote for them tactically to oust a Labour incumbent.
My view is that at some point in the 1980s and 1990s, voters just got out of the habit of voting Conservative in Parliamentary by-elections, and have now lost any interest in doing so.
Does any of this matter? In the short term, it can do. The outcome of Brent East precipitated the downfall of Iain Duncan-Smith, and there is no doubt that good and bad performances in by-elections do affect activistsâ€™ morale. In the longer term, I think it makes no difference at all. The Conservatives gained three times as many seats as the Liberal Democrats did in 2005, despite the huge difference between the partiesâ€™ by election performances, and look set to perform much better than the Liberal Democrats at the next election, regardless of by-election results.
There was just one local by-election last night, in Ashfield DC, Sutton West. resulting in a Liberal Democrat gain from an independent. The result was Lib Dem 873,Labour 560, BNP 321, Independent 275, Conservative 257,Green 72. The Liberal Democrats did not contest this seat in May, but would appear to have little difficulty winning all three seats from Independents in the future.
Sean Fear is a London Tory activist