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Thursday 6th December 2012 | 12:49
WORDS: MARK GETTLESON
Not since the mass unionist resignation of 1986 have there been so many by-elections in the same month. Five were held in safe Labour seats where there was no suggestion of the party being seriously challenged. The other, and by far the most prominent, was held in such a narrowly-held Conservative marginal that the blues were written off as soon as Louise Mensch announced her resignation. Indeed, UKIP MEP Roger Helmer described her as “served up as a human sacrifice on whom the bruised voters of Corby could vent their annoyance.”
There were, however, glimmers of importance to be read into the results. Above all, the Labour gain in Corby showed Mr Miliband was able to do in just two and a half years what it took the Conservatives 11 years to achieve: take a seat off the Government. That said, the Conservatives had a much longer wait before a Labour-held marginal came along. Corby also showed that the near complete collapse in the Liberal Democrat vote wholly benefited Labour in this seat where Mr Clegg’s party have little or no local infrastructure.
Much has of course been read into UKIP’s success in recording a significant swing in each seat, seemingly at the expense of the Conservatives. Though of course interesting to pundits, it’s important to caution against reading too much into this phenomenon. The small number of people who vote in by-elections do so for different reasons as they might at a general election: many will be coming out in a habitual show of loyalty to their favoured party, others will come out for a candidate they believe can win, while others see a need – in an election that won’t change anything – to express frustrations. In contests where only Labour candidates could win, there was clear scope for this kind of behaviour.
There are also, however, questions as to an emerging electoral vacuum in the north of England and what will fill it. The Conservatives were all but wiped out in the urban north in the 1980s and hold no councillors at all in most urban centres north of Birmingham. Into this gap came the Liberal Democrats, from St Helens to Hull, Newcastle to Sheffield. But since the formation of the Coalition, the toxicity of Conservatism in such areas has spread to Mr Clegg’s party.
There is a clear sense that gap will need to be filled. Within this, there may slowly be a role for UKIP, drawing on the fact that northern voters are more conservative and anti-political than is often remembered. Polling by Policy Exchange for their excellent Northern Lights report found northern voters were even more likely than their southern counterparts to believe that the UK should allow almost no immigration, 66% against 61%. Similarly, they were more likely to disagree that ‘Britain’s future is going to be better than its past’, 60% to 52%, and 11 points more likely than southerners to believe that ‘politicians don’t understand the real world at all’, 46% to 35%.
These by-elections did not matter, but they may hint at some interesting patterns to come.