What lessons from Feltham and Heston by-election?

Seema Malhotra as the result is declared Labour's Seema Malhotra increased the party's majority to take the seat

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Wild extrapolation of the results of one by-election to draw conclusions about the health of political parties should always come with a health warning: it is one seat out of 650, in one part of the country.

But at the very least it is a snapshot, with real campaigns, real ballot boxes, and real votes.

Not just a pollster interrupting your evening meal to ask who you would vote for, if there happened to be a general election tomorrow.

The first observation from here in suburban west London does not make for a sexy headline.

'Steady and significant'

There was no real change. Labour won, like last time, the Conservatives were second, like last time and the Liberal Democrats were third, like last time.

Given they are in opposition at Westminster, Labour hoped to nudge a bit further ahead of the rest, and they did.

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Expect Ed Miliband and his shadow ministers to use the result to argue there is real concern among many about the scale and speed of the government's austerity measures.”

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The new MP, Seema Malhotra, secured a majority of 6,203 over the Conservatives, a swing of 8.6%.

The former Labour minister Jim Fitzpatrick was the party's campaign manager here. When I grabbed a word with him a few minutes after the declaration he was sober in his analysis of the result: "Not spectacular, but steady and significant progress" was how he put it.

In other words, it is how they should be performing in a seat like this and at a time like this.

Expect Ed Miliband and his shadow ministers to use the result to argue there is real concern among many about the scale and speed of the government's austerity measures.

'Respectable'

The Conservative candidate Mark Bowen told me finishing second again - this is the third time he has contested this constituency, and the third time he has been runner up - was a "respectable result."

Given Labour have held this seat for almost two decades and the Tories are now in government, chalking this up as a Conservative scalp was always very unlikely.

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There was a small industry of expectation management churning away among Liberal Democrat and UK Independence Party activists.”

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But they are not no-hopers here: they held the seat in the 1980s when Lady Thatcher was prime minister and it is the kind of constituency they would have needed to win at the last general election to give the Conservatives a reasonable majority on their own.

So far, so predictable. The battle for third place, though, was quite a tussle.

You might think that with the first-past-the-post electoral system - and only one winner - nothing else would really matter.

But the pecking order of the also-rans does matter: it matters for morale among grassroots party members and it matters because of the conclusions that are leapt to and the headlines that are written in the days after by election results.

Dark nights

In the hours before the declaration there was a small industry of expectation management churning away among Liberal Democrat and UK Independence Party activists.

One Lib Dem whispered "third place is at the upper end of our expectations", a line intended to prepare the ground for a dire result.

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Particularly before Christmas, many organisations weren't able to organise those hustings”

End Quote Roger Crouch Lib Dem candidate

After all, at a by-election in Barnsley in March they finished sixth. And they only managed 627 votes in the Inverclyde by election in the summer.

In the end though, they did manage to finish third here, just, and they did manage to retain their deposit, just, with 5.87% of the vote, to UKIP's 5.49%. The BNP finished fifth with 2.33%.

All of the candidates I spoke to expressed concern at the turnout. Just 28.8% of those who could have voted, did, the lowest turnout in a by-election for 11 years.

There was something of a perfect storm of indifference: Christmas is a matter of days away, it is cold, it is wet and it is dark.

By-elections in December do not have much of a track record for firing up the passions of a sizeable chunk of the electorate.

Roger Crouch, the Liberal Democrat candidate, suggested there was an additional factor that contributed to the low turnout: "It was a very short campaign. There was only one hustings in this campaign.

"It was organised by the Chamber of Commerce and it was a closed meeting. In a normal campaign you would expect community groups and the churches to have the opportunity to arrange hustings. And, particularly before Christmas, many organisations weren't able to organise those hustings."

Figures from the House of Commons Library show that between 1979 and today, the average time between an MP's death and the subsequent by-election - or general election in cases where there was no by-election - has been 73 days.

In Feltham and Heston it was 35 days, making it the third 'quickest' by election in 33 years.

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