Last night, I heard of the sad death of Gwyneth Dunwoody not from our own site or Dale’s, who each had the news shortly before midnight, but from the BBC midnight news on Radio 4. I immediately shared it with my long suffering partner who is not terribly political at all, and his first reaction was, “That means you’ll be off to a by-election again, does it?”
This promptly became a learning point on how politicos have to pretend outwardly that the only thing on their minds is the sad loss of the member in question, whilst furiously plotting through their minds the political ramifications of an extra-curricular election in the area in question. You can bet your bottom dollar there were significant numbers of hits of online repositories as the activist class quickly googled last time’s general election results.
All this is usually kept closely under wraps, for fear of giving one party the opportunity to parade their grief and print a leaflet accusing another of unseemly political opportunism in such sad circumstances. The good folk in the forth estate have plenty of material in reserve to talk about the lost parliamentarian for a good couple of days before gently moving on to talk about by-elections. And sensitivities remain for a long time afterwards. In Romsey, for example, when the death was the result of an unexpected house fire, the subsequent victory for the Lib Dems is still often reported paired with respect for the former MP.
Those sensitivities don’t seem to have been in the forefront of the minds of the folk at the Guardian, where a piece speculating on the outcomes of the by-election appeared barely 12 hours after the former MP for Crewe and Nantwich passed away. The piece, initially timestamped 1.15 and just now updated to 3.15, clearly found no shortage of unnamed sources of people prepared to speculate on the politics of the situation with no mention of the personal tragedy.
It’s clearly desperately important for the Tories to do well in Crewe. Will this finally be the opportunity to take a seat from the Labour party? The last time they managed it was before I was born (and incidentally, the defeated Labour candidate was Tessa Jowell. I wonder what happened to her?) and they need to show they have momentum if they seriously believe they can win any future general election.
It’s hard to remember in all that’s happened since that last summer’s by-elections were a serious blow to the Tories. David Cameron staked his reputation on the outcome of Ealing Southall, and when they were pushed into third place, it was seen as a humiliating defeat. A very similar result in Sedgefield just added salt to the wound. And strange as it now may seem, Ming Campbell took some of the credit in a much-needed and ultimately unsuccessful boost to his personal standing.
Don’t rule out the Liberal Democrats in Gwyneth Dunwoody’s part of the world, however. Crewe has a very big railway station, and there are plenty of local seats in that neck of the woods that could send helpers to the eventual by-election. Staff from the offices of our MPs in Hereford, Montgomeryshire, Birmingham, Manchester are all under
an hour ninety minutes away. Activists from Ludlow and Shrewsbury, where we have had MPs in the recent past can hop on the Welsh Marches service; there’s even direct trains from Cornwall and Cardiff. We hold nearby Stockport council and Rochdale has a few people they may be able to spare, after winning control of the council just last year.
And finally, one more interesting variable to throw into the air. Two unlikely things may happen which lead to another parliamentary by-election – and we know how the Labour party prefer to fight on two fronts at once if they can (Leicester and Hodge Hill; Sedgefield and Ealing Southall…). But if Boris Johnson wins the London mayoralty and if he keeps his promise to resign his parliamentary seat, we could be facing double whammy in Henley as well as Crewe and Nantwich. Labour have to decide whether to hold off until the May results are known (which will probably include a major drubbing for the Reds) or set in motion the short timetable for a parliamentary by-election now, whilst the local elections are already being fought.