Is it going to be as bad for Labour as 1997 was for the Tories?
Reading too much into by-election results is a very dangerous game. There arenâ€™t very many of them and where and when they take place is close to a random process. However, having said all that, thereâ€™s one aspect of the recent Norwich North by-election result which could be an important pointer and which hasnâ€™t had much coverage: the scale of the collapse of support for Labour.
Over 21,000 voters supported Labour at the 2005 general election in Norwich North; at the by-election, they kept fewer than three in ten of them. Perhaps even worse was the fall in their share of the vote, down by almost three-fifths, from 44.9% to just 18.2%. For comparison, Labourâ€™s share dropped by only three-eighths in Crewe & Nantwich.
Those are figures unseen before during Labourâ€™s time in office in comparable elections. There have been larger falls in one measure or another but only when Labour suffered a third-party squeeze in Con/LD seats, or when there was a dramatic fall in turnout. Neither was the case in Norwich.
Even during the Conservative government of 1992-7, there was only one drop in support for the Tories at a by-election on such a scale and across all measures, in Dudley West. In other elections where there was a larger swing or fall in the share of the vote, that was from a stronger starting position so the percentage fall in the share of the vote was not as great – and of course, those elections took their baseline from a Conservative win in 1992 with the most votes in history for a party and a share of 42%. Labourâ€™s starting point is a good deal more modest.
The significance of all this is that it underlines again in real votes just how desperate things are for Labour. Itâ€™s easy to adjust expectations of what is â€˜normalâ€™ in the light of whatâ€™s recently happened. An opinion poll placing Labour in the high twenties is regarded as â€˜good newsâ€™ when the reality is that such an outcome, combined with a Conservative share in the lowÂ forties, would lead to at least a very workable Conservative majority and the loss of more Labour seats than at any general election since 1931.
Labourâ€™s support actually started going missing quite a long time ago. Blairâ€™s second victory was achieved with fewer votes than Kinnockâ€™s Labour won in 1992; his third victory was off the back of fewer votes than Labour secured in 1987. This is not a healthy position to be starting from and may explain part of the reason why over the last year, Labour has polled at levels below which those the Conservatives bottomed out at in the mid-nineties, using the ICM series for comparison.
Again though, the polls only underline the results of real votes in real elections. Labourâ€™s share of the vote at the European elections was dismal. Their vote came close to effectively disappearing in whole regions of the country. Labour doesnâ€™t need to poll well in every region but they didnâ€™t poll well anywhere, with fewer than 2.4m votes overall – a third lower than 2004.
Itâ€™s this wholesale haemorrhaging of votes which should be most worrying to Labourâ€™s high command. A general election will produce a much higher turnout than either a by-election or the Europeans but to what extent will the Labour vote return? Each election that passes with so many at best sitting on their hands lessens those votersâ€™ emotional or instinctive ties to the party. The Conservatives lost about 4.5m votes between 1992 and 1997 and it took a decade to recover. Labour has already lost 4m votes between 1997 and 2005 – before the kind of voter strikes weâ€™ve seen this year.
Norwich North might have been a flash in the pan, the result of an unusual set of circumstances at a particularly bad time – or it might reveal the continuance of a trend whereby onetime Labour voters no longer vote that way. The assumption is that come the day, theyâ€™ll turn out. They might not.