As with last week, this week saw an unusual non-Thursday by-election, again from Scotland but this time on a Monday:
First in of the five principal authority council by-elections held on Thursday was a rare Labour gain from the Conservatives in ward containing the inappropriately named – this time at least – pub ‘All Labour In Vain’. Regrettably, there was no Liberal Democrat candidate:
This was extended into a rare run of good Labour results with a hold too elsewhere:
But then a loss for Labour also in a ward both of whose councillors were Liberal Democrat after a victorious by-election in 2012 but both of whom then left the party, one to Labour and one to independent. A loss, moreover, with an eye-watering drop in the vote share:
In Tonbridge and Malling both Greens and Liberal Democrats backed Labour rather than putting up their own candidates. The Conservatives however still won very comfortably:
Finally another contest with a Lib Dem candidate:
And now the Parliamentary by-election, with Lib Dem Ross Pepper the only candidate to increase his party’s vote share:
That Liberal Democrat performance is a marked improving on the last few years of by-elections where the party has been a long way out of contention for winning. Deposit held, vote up and overtaking another party to move up a place in the final ranking. The party even came close to finishing second.
As I’ve argued in my pamphlet on rebuilding the Liberal Democrats the party needs to take such contests seriously to regain credibility in the eyes of the wider world and to build political momentum. The welcome change in approach which we have seen this year to contests the party is unlikely to win had already paid big dividends: the big progress in Witney helped set up the win in Richmond. Now the contest in Sleaford & North Hykeham also has shown the value of taking all Parliamentary by-elections seriously as they all make up part of the overall picture the media paints of the state of the party, and through the media the picture the wider public sees.
It also gives a glimpse of the power of a core vote strategy for the Liberal Democrats, centred on pro-Europeanism and gives a hint that the striking YouGov polling on how people across the country would vote in the next general election ended up being focused on Europe reflects something very real happening amongst the electorate. Even in an area which heavily supported Leave, a pro-European message helped power the Liberal Democrats to an increase in its vote.
Having a clear and distinctive position on the controversial issue of the day puts off some voters, but seeking the support of everyone is a strategy for dictators not democrats. In a democracy and can give you attention and success thanks to the other voters it attracts.
I’ve often commented in council by-elections on a poor Ukip performance, so note once again the falling Ukip vote share – and this in a seat that voted heavily for Leave and after Europe has been in the headlines for several days in the immediate run up to voting. Labour falling to fourth is pretty unpleasant reading for Jeremy Corbyn’s party too.