2017’s by-elections will reveal the divisions within the British electorate

Stephen Hall, of Freshwater’s public affairs team, provides his analysis of parties’ by-election performance in 2016 and what to look out for in the months to come.

In 1982 the Conservatives won the Mitcham & Morden by-election, marking the first time in 30 years that an incumbent government increased its majority in a parliamentary seat during the parliamentary cycle. Since then the record has stood unbroken for 35 years but, with a cacophony of fault lines riven through the British electorate, 2017 could see it challenged again - for the first time in decades.

Over the past 12 months, the normalcy of British political life has faced the torrents of change. Even the usual barometers with which to judge the public appetite have proved unreliable. Following the turbulence of 2016, the public can no longer be judged in terms of its support of, or opposition to, a coherent narrative, but instead as more piecemeal, divided and much less predictable.

June’s referendum of Brexit continues to shape British political parties and, for different reasons, led to the resignation of two Conservative MPs and an impressive by-election win for the Liberal Democrats in Richmond Park.

Council by-elections through the year have resulted in a net swing towards the Liberal Democrats (+29), while the Tories (-33) and Labour (-7) have both lost seats. These figures are put into greater perspective when you consider that the Conservatives had, with 139, the most seats to defend (so their net loss of 33 doesn’t look quite so bad) but still lost 50 - over twice as many as were lost by Labour, who held 85 of its 107 seats defended (gaining 15). Meanwhile the Lib Dem’s gain of 32 seats, mainly from the Tories (and far more than the 23 seats it had to defend), against a loss of just three, makes their year in local politics seem even more impressive.

2016 has reinforced the notion that reversals of fortune are unpredictable. Not only did the immediate fallout of the referendum end the Cameron era, but the unravelling ‘Cuckoo Nest plot’ finished off Boris Johnson’s immediate ambitions for Downing Street. And while the Richmond Park by-election was heralded as the “fightback” for a party decimated at the 2015 general election, we are still a long way from knowing whether the Lib Dems’ nascent change in fortune will be replicated across the country come the next general election. 

Brexit Referendum in London, UK

Just before Christmas, the resignation of the Labour MP for the Cumbrian constituency of Copeland, Jamie Reed, triggering a by-election expected in March, is expected to be a competitive three-way race between Labour, the Conservatives and Ukip and will be important in defining Labour’s trajectory for the year ahead. We would be wrong to think a Conservative government part way through its second term could be electorally complacent or ineffective. Under normal circumstances, the Labour Party candidate would be expected to retain the seat but, given the myriad issues, this election poses real difficulties for them.

Copeland, a marginal seat, has high levels of Euroscepticism as well as a higher-than-average rate of deprivation (Cumbria Joint Strategic Needs Assessment 2012-2015). At the 2015 General Election Ukip increased its share of the vote by 13.2% in what appears to have been a large drift from traditional Labour voters. At the same time the Liberal Democrat vote collapsed by 6.7%, which we would suspect bolstered the Labour vote, which still fell by 3.5%. If Ukip continues to capture former Labour voters, the Liberal Democrats are able to recover a share of their vote, and should the Conservative lead in the polls come to fruition at the ballot box, the seat, which has been represented by a Labour MP since 1935, may be lost.

By-elections are notoriously difficult to read, but with the Copeland electorate divided and national indicators showing a lack of popular support for Jeremy Corbyn, Copeland could bolster the Conservative’s diminished Parliamentary majority if the election focusses on Europe at a time when the government plans to trigger Article 50.

We are yet to hear who has been selected as the Labour candidate for this election. The outcome will act as a diving rod for the year ahead and give us some indication likely key themes of 2017 - the extent of Labour’s woes, the possible success of Paul Nuttall’s Ukip in the north, or if a strong Conservative lead in the polls can persist. If a pro-Corbyn candidate wins, their success will be heralded as a change in fortune for the embattled leadership - a loss would be money in the bank for those in the party seeking disruption.

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By-election figures from britainelects.com


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Impact Report 2017

Impact report 2017