It is perhaps a sign of the times that three Parliamentary by-elections took place yesterday, and even your day editor mentally filed them under “not that interesting”. After all, all three were safe Labour seats at a point in the electoral cycle when the other two major parties are doing a bunch of unpopular things. Naturally, Labour held all three easily, although had they managed to lose even one, the media would doubtless have found room on their front page somehow.
In Croydon North, Marisha Ray did at least have the consolation of beating Respect’s Lee Jasper into sixth place, coming fourth with 840 votes, which represented 3.5% and a lost deposit. For Labour, Steve Reed, leader of Lambeth Council, increased their share of the vote to 64.4%, whilst the Conservatives came second with 16.8% and UKIP saved their deposit with 5.7%.
In Rotherham, the public appear to have spoken, and their message was that, if you don’t take them seriously, they’ll vote for anyone who responds to their frustration. In a result which speaks volumes for the one party state that is that part of South Yorkshire, UKIP came second with 21.8%, the BNP third with 8.5% and Respect fourth with 8.4%. Unfortunately, whilst the Conservatives clung onto the deposit in fifth place with 5.7%, Mike Beckett came eighth with 481 votes (2.1%), which meant our second lost deposit of the night.
Finally, because you should always end on a high note (and I accept that this is entirely relative), in Middlesbrough, George Selmer, part of the incredibly effective campaign team from the Redcar triumph in 2010, came third with 1,672 (9.9%), behind Labour’s Andy McDonald with 10,201 votes (60.5%) and UKIP on 1,990 votes (11.8%).
So, what have we learnt from last night?
Firstly, all three contests were in seats where Liberal Democrats polled below their national share in 2010 (Croydon North 14.0%, Middlesbrough 19.9%, Rotherham 16.0%). Indeed, in two of them, Croydon North and Rotherham, our share of the vote fell between 2005 and 2010 – it was up 1.2% in Middlesbrough over that period. From that, one can reasonably conclude that Liberal Democrat support in seats like these is relatively sparse, and vulnerable to a vicious squeeze in a by-election.
Second, in low turnouts, the fringe candidates come to the fore when public confidence in more mainstream political parties is low. UKIP rode the wave of the Rotherham fostering scandal to achieve their best ever result in a Parliamentary election, but still lost comfortably. Respect tried to game the betting markets in Croydon North to imply that their candidate was a threat to Labour there. He wasn’t.
Thirdly, in an election where the result really isn’t in doubt, people vote to stay at home on a cold winter evening.
These weren’t great results for the Party, although the prospects of them being anything other than a battle to retain the deposit were slim. If there’s any consolation, it is that these by-elections will not be any real guide to the outcome of the 2015 General Election nationally.
Finally, Liberal Democrats should be thankful for Marisha, Mike and George, whose efforts in carrying the Liberal Democrat banner under very trying circumstances are worthy of note.