Well, this is interesting.
There were two council by-elections yesterday. One was in Croxteth (not to be confused with Toxteth), a ward of Liverpool City Council, which currently has a small Labour majority; the other was in Wednesbury (famed for its reasonableness), a ward of Sandwell MBC, which has a large Labour majority. In Croxteth two seats were contested, one of which had been held by Labour and one by a Liberal Democrat. The Wednesbury vacancy was caused by the retirement of a Tory councillor; the May election result was very close, so there were hopes that Labour would take it.
Here are the results for the main parties (May 2010 and % change in brackets).
Croxteth (two seats)
Labour 1447 (3307; +4.3%)
Lib Dem 611 (1711; -6.5%)
Lib Dem 479
Soc Lab 135 (244; +0.2%)
Soc Lab 70
Green 63 (78; no change)
English Democrats 35
English Democrats 33
Conservative 31 (271; -3.5%)
There doesn’t seem to be much of a bedrock Conservative vote in Croxteth. The Lib Dem result at first sight doesn’t look too bad – they got 24% of the vote in an eight-way fight (admittedly trailing Labour’s 63.2% rather substantially), meaning that they’ve only lost 20% of the vote they had in May. But bear in mind that there were two seats up for election, one of which was actually held by a Lib Dem, and this result looks a bit more striking.
The picture in Wednesbury is a bit more straightforward:
Labour 1322 (1938; +25.2%)
Conservative 643 (1989; -8.4%)
National Front 76 (BNP 615; -8.5%)
Lib Dem 45 (534; -8.3%)
Get in! The Tory vote has slumped to 30% – a substantial bedrock, but bear in mind this has been a safe Tory seat until fairly recently. The Lib Dem vote has melted like ice in the sun; the same goes for what was a worryingly strong showing by the fash. Labour’s share of the vote is 63.4% – slightly higher than in Croxteth. And this was a safe Tory seat.
Swing away from Coalition parties, swing back to Labour. All highly predictable, surely – is this really worth writing about? I think it is, for three reasons. Firstly, it’s a big swing; that Wednesbury North result, in particular, reminds me of nothing so much as the early days of the SDP. People aren’t just protesting against the Tories – abstention does that just as well; they’re going big on Labour. (And not, apparently, on the far Right. Mind you, I’m not sure how reassured we should be by the collapse of the BNP vote in Wednesbury; there will certainly have been intra-fash sectarian factors involved. I have to say, the implosion of the BNP couldn’t have happened at a better time.)
The second thing that makes this interesting is, precisely, the contrast between the SDP in 1981-2 and Labour now. They had: well-known, well-liked and well-respected leaders (and Bill Rogers); a massive advertising campaign; guarded sympathy from most of the Tory press, and the unswerving and enthusiastic loyalty of the Guardian; and, at least initially, a genuine groundswell of activism at the grassroots. It wasn’t exactly the Tea Party in its intensity – more of a coffee morning – but it was there; I remember that one of my mother’s friends at church asked her if she’d joined yet. The way the party kept winning by-elections against all-comers was a bit of a shock at the time – a friend said that it looked as if they were going to “break the mould” of British politics by replacing it with a one-party state – but in retrospect it’s not all that surprising: with all of that going for them, how couldn’t they win?
By contrast, Labour in 2010 have got Ed Miliband, and, er. I’ve got no more idea what Miliband’s Labour is going to stand for than I did the day he was elected: something Brownite? something a bit Old Labour-ish? is he going to let the Blairites run the show? does he want the Blairites to run the show? We really don’t know, and that kind of uncertainty is (or ought to be) electoral poison – more of a vote-loser than a definite commitment to just about anything. Combine that with the complete absence of all the other factors that played into the SDP’s support, and 60% votes are really not what we’d expect at all. (Yes, I know council elections are different, but they’re not that different.)
The third and most surprising feature of these votes is that nothing’s happened yet. We’ve had the Comprehensive Spending Review, we know that the government wants to put us (or someone we know) out of work, but they haven’t done it yet – they haven’t had a chance. This is still very much the Phoney War. I can only think that what we’re seeing now is basically buyer’s remorse: lots of people who voted Lib Dem, and (interestingly) quite a lot who voted Tory, have taken a look at what they’re going to get and decided they don’t actually fancy it after all. People who used their vote in May to “send a message” to the Labour Party are doing it again, this time to send a message saying “oops, sorry, can you come back?”
I don’t think this necessarily tells us much about where the real anger will go when things start going properly bad; an awful lot will depend on what direction Labour finally settle on. But these results suggest to me that there’s a strong movement of opposition to the Coalition there to be built, if anyone’s prepared to build it. And I wonder if the odds are starting to lengthen on the Coalition lasting the full five years. Interesting times ahead.