Was this the dirtiest campaign since the general election?
There have been two over-whelming themes in the series of Westminster by elections during the 2005 parliament: the intertwined stories of the re-emergence of the Conservatives as a party capable of winning seats and the difficulties that the Liberal Democrats had in maintaining their historically excellent record of doing very well in this form of contest.
For the latter Westminster by-elections had over the years become the oxygen that had kept the party alive when the two-party battle between the reds and the blues seemed to dominate everything. They had an approach, perfected in battle after battle, that saw them go from one sensation to another.
By Norwich North, last month, it seemed that the old Liberal Democrat by-election magic had evaporated and other parties, particularly the Tories, were replicating their methods.
How different it was in the first year of the 2005 parliament where the by-election series began with a very unusual contest â€“ a Liberal Democrat defence against the Conservatives in the leafy outer Manchester suburb of Cheadle. This had been a Liberal Democrat hold in the general election but the MP, Patsy Calton, sadly died less than four weeks later.
The Conservatives, who had then started their prolonged leadership battle, were keen to prove that after their general election defeat that they were still a fighting force and put everything into the battle. With the benefit of hindsight probably they went too far. The result was that the Lib Dem was able to make negative campaigning the major issue
In the end the Liberal Democrat candidate saw his vote rise by 3.3%, the Conservative up by 2.2% all at the expense of Labour which failed to achieve the 5% threshold to save the party’s deposit.
Apart from Winchester in 1997, where the general election result had been annulled by the courts, Cheadle was the only Liberal Democrat defence of a seat since the party’s foundation in 1987. Given the huge changes in the political climate since June 2005 I wonder what the outcome of a Cheadle-type contest would be today. How successful would Clegg’s party be in defending such a seat?
It would be a great fight that I find it hard to call. This would be an election which was not about Gordon Brown’s government and the skill of both the LD and Tory machines would be tested to the full.
One thing’s for sure – there would be mountains of paper stuffed through letter-boxes.