Sunday 25 May 2008

Reading the runes

Crewe and Nantwich is done and dusted; the inevitable defeat for Labour, and by a larger margin than many (other than Vaughan Roderick) predicted.

Of course some try to read the runes and make projections from any by-election; but one needs to be careful. I've been a candidate in a parliamentary by-election myself, and there’s no doubt that it’s always a bit of a circus, and a far from reliable indication for the future.

In my own case, it was in 1989, following the death of Sir Raymond Gower, who had been the Conservative MP for 38 years, ever since 1951. The Vale of Glamorgan, and Barry before it, had remained loyal to Sir Raymond and the Tories all through the Labour years under Wilson and Callaghan, despite the fact that, in psephological terms, it should always have been much more marginal than the Tory majority suggested.

However, the Tories were at a low ebb, and the seat was captured by Labour’s John Smith – as in Crewe and Nantwich, with a bigger majority than most had really expected. A 6,000 vote Tory majority became a 6,000 vote Labour majority. There were special factors – of course there were. It was a by-election, and there are always special factors. In this case, it was the intervention of an ‘Independent NHS’ candidate. He got a fairly low proportion of the vote (even lower than me!), but he focussed the campaign on a single issue, which had a particular resonance for people at the time.

As for me, well, I came a creditable fourth, and did at least beat Screaming Lord Sutch, Miss Whiplash, and the SDP by a respectable margin, although I failed to gain the even more creditable third place which the opinion polls had promised me. (They may have been less than entirely objective, mind – my wife was opinion-polled on three separate occasions during the campaign. I hope that boosted my score!)

But, and back to the plot, at the next election in 1992, the Tories regained the seat, albeit with a wafer-thin majority of 19, and the Tories retained their majority overall in Westminster, although reduced. But, and this is the big but, in the following election, in 1997, Labour swept the seat, and John Smith was returned with a massive majority of almost 11,000. John has held the seat ever since of course.

So, my point is this; the by-election undeniably exaggerated significantly the extent of the swing; but the direction of travel, to use one of the latest jargon phrases, was perfectly clear. That, I suspect, is the message of Crewe and Nantwich. Labour’s days are numbered. They may yet make the sort of recovery that John Major’s Tories achieved in 1992, but their days of large majorities in Parliament are finished.

Normal Mouth argues that the concept of tipping points is much-overstated, and certainly passé. Possibly; but sometimes a mood can set in. It may well be that the Tories have done well recently less out of a positive commitment to what they stand for than out of desperation for change. But winning seats, even in by-elections, that would previously have been thought beyond their reach gives the opposition heart, and disheartens the government. A small surge can become a flood in such circumstances, as MPs start to see the end of their careers looming in front of them, and begin to panic.

Even if Labour are not yet facing a rout, one would have to be pretty much detached from reality to believe that they are on course to gain seats at the next election. That brings me neatly to Martin Eaglestone. If I read him correctly, he seems to be saying, basically, that people should hold their noses and vote Labour in order to keep the Tories out. If that’s the best reason for voting Labour that they can come up with after 12 or 13 years in office, then they will lose – and they will deserve to lose.

1 comment:

Normal Mouth said...

A good analysis. I don't saw the result of C&N is not suggestive of a Labour Party in trouble; clearly it is.

I merely say that the days when we could neatly conclude a turning points from such a result are long gone (if, indeed, they ever existed - Alun on my blog argues they were ever a myth).

But you are right to point to the effect on morale of such events.

Good blog, by the way. I'm enjoying it.