Sunday, 8 June 2014

Newark. Not good.

If you work for a political party at some point in your life, you soon learn that the results of by-elections, as a rule, should not have too much attention paid to them. They are often special cases, with protest voting, or whatever other topical factor. However, every now and then they can throw up something significant, even if it is merely highlighting a risk.

The Newark result last Thursday, where Labour came third after the Tories and UKIP, on a vote-share nearly 5% lower than in 2010, was one such. At this point in the parliamentary cycle, it is clear that a serious challenger needs to be, at minimum, increasing their vote from the last election.

You can't really blame a politician for spinning a result in the best possible way, but the defence from those unfortunate MPs whose job it was to take to the airwaves on Friday, that this decline was down to "the UKIP effect", was weak in two ways. The argument was that there was a tactical vote from UKIP to Tory, to keep out UKIP, which hurt the Labour vote*.

It was a weak argument, first, because we are defining our result with regard to another party as if "the UKIP effect" were an act of God that we can do nothing about. This is the politics of losing. Whatever effect there is now may well be there in twelve months' time and we need to have a way of beating it, if indeed it is the reason.

Second, that the logic is self-defeating. If there is some kind of effect which transfers votes from UKIP to Tory in a parliamentary by-election, tactical or otherwise, we should be pretty worried. And that is because an alternative explanation to tactical voting is simply that Eurosceptic voters decline to waste their vote in a parliamentary election (as opposed to a Euro or council election, which they do not care about), hold their noses and vote Tory. 

Which highlights the risk of a last-minute swing to the Tories at the end of this parliament, which would also fit historical trend, as we have mentioned here before.

Not good. Not good at all.

*for the record, I also heard on Twitter the argument that it was the other way around, that people wanting to hurt the Tories voted tactically for UKIP instead of Labour. The conclusion being that it was rather a convenient excuse, down to [insert reason I just made up]. The apparent complacency of some of Labour's rank and file at this result is in many ways more worrying than politicians defending it, which is, after all, their job.

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