Could 1997 have Been Worse for the Conservatives
On polling day in 1997, I asked my association agent what result we could expect in Hertsmere, where we were defending a majority of 18,000. I can remember my shock when he told me that he wasnâ€™t sure we could hold it, but if we did, it would only be by a couple of thousand (in the end, the Conservative majority was 3,000). Even after polls had closed, I could not believe the results be as terrible as they turned out to be (I still thought the Conservatives could hold about 200 seats). I certainly never expected seats like Brent North, Harrow West, Northavon, Harrogate, and Crosby to fall on gigantic swings to the non-Conservative candidate. An overall swing of 10% to Labour didnâ€™t surprise me too much, but the level of tactical voting, and the swings of 14% + in marginal (and not so marginal) seats were astonishing.
And yet, it could have been even worse for the Conservatives. I can remember at one point in the evening, the BBC was predicting that the Conservatives would be down to about 140 seats, and the Liberal Democrats up to about 60, based on many of the earlier declarations. Somehow, though, the Conservatives were able to cling on to many rural seats, like Totnes, Wells, Bury St. Edmunds, and Norfok South West by narrow margins, when supposedly safer urban seats had been lost. A number of seats that the Conservatives had lost in the past to Labour, like Uxbridge, Aldridge-Brownhills, Meriden, or South West Bedfordshire, were actually retained, albeit, very narrowly.
A vote share of 31% was terrible, but it was undoubtedly better than the 25% that the Conservatives won in the local elections of 1995, when councils like Hertsmere, Fenland, Cherwell, and North Hertfordshire went Labour for the first (and probably last) ever time, and Southern England became a mass of yellow, with just the occasional blue patch showing through. A defeat along those lines would have seen the Conservatives reduced to about 100 seats nationwide.
1997 guaranteed that the Conservatives would be out of office for at least two terms. But a reduction to 140 ( or even 100) MPs would probably have finished off the Conservative Party for good as a contender for government in this country. Itâ€™s cold comfort for Conservatives, perhaps, but 1997 could have been worse.
There were four by-elections yesterday, and one, in Northern Ireland, on Wednesday. One of these, Elgin City South, on Moray Council, is counting today.
Banbridge Borough, Northern Ireland, Dromore Electoral Area. On the first round, the result was DUP 1,069, UUP 912, Traditional Unionist Voice 739, Alliance 357, Sinn Fein 350, SDLP 290, Green. On the last round, after the redistribution of transfers, the result was UUP 1,578, DUP 1,505, for an Ulster Unionist hold. The DUP hold three out of five seats in this electoral area, and had expected to gain the fourth easily. They were prevented from doing so by Traditional Unionist Voice, a party founded by former DUP MEP Jim Allister, and a number of DUP councillors who disapprove of the party power-sharing with Sinn Fein. It remains to be seen whether Traditional Unionist Voice can become a rival to the DUP, or if this will be a flash in the pan. Alliance, who didnâ€™t stand here in 2005, also polled well. In all likelihood, had this result been repeated in a normal round of local elections, the DUP would have won two seats, UUP and Traditional Unionist Voice one each, and Alliance or, possibly, Sinn Fein, the last seat.
London Borough of Waltham Forest, Leyton. Lib Dem 1,360, Labour 695, Independent (one of the factions of Respect, I think) 176, Conservative 106, Green 90. Liberal Democrat gain from Labour, with a huge swing. This result comes as no surprise, as the outgoing Labour councillor had been found guilty of calling her defeated Liberal Democrat opponent a paedophile, during the 2006 election campaign, and was disqualified.
Preston Borough, Tulketh. Labour 423, Lib Dem 400, Conservative 292, Respect (the SWP faction) 84, Green 84. Labour hold, but a strong performance for the Liberal Democrats, who leap-frogged the Conservatives.
East Staffordshire District, Stretton. Conservative 661, Labour 366, BNP 327, Popular Alliance (what remains of Veritas) 233, Lib Dem 205. An easy Conservative hold.