UK Politics

Analysis: Do by-elections mean anything?

Sarah Champion wins Rotherham by-election
Image caption Most by-elections in this Parliament have been in safe Labour seats

Governments fear them, pundits pore over them, the public increasingly ignores them. Can we read anything into the results of Parliamentary by-elections?

You can always spot the soundbites.

"Mid term blues."

"A sea change in the electorate."

"What this result shows is the British people..."

The results of by-elections are used by politicians to spin all sorts of messages.

In November alone, there were six Parliamentary by elections.

That is the same number as in the whole of Labour's second term between 2001 and 2005.

Candidates had stood in nervy anticipation in that most political of arenas, the draughty sports hall or town hall, at two o'clock in the morning.

Reporters had hovered too, waiting for the result.

But, do most by elections deserve that much attention?

Weather vane?

"By-elections are fun. They are a good sideline from the day to day national politics. And they can on occasions give us an indication of what's going on," Justin Fisher, Professor of Political Science at Brunel University told the BBC.

"I suppose the analogy would be with the early period of general election night, where we try to extrapolate what is going to happen from a handful of seats. And of course that is very difficult.

Image caption David Rendel's victory in Newbury was the first of eight consecutive Tory losses

"Some seats will tell you a lot. Some seats won't tell you much at all."

That final observation from Professor Fisher is worth exploring, because most of the by elections since the last general election have been in safe Labour seats.

But, say observers, look back at by election performances with some perspective, and they are an invaluable weather vane of political fortunes.

After winning a fourth consecutive term in 1992, the Conservatives quickly found themselves on a sticky electoral wicket.

Being trounced by the Liberal Democrats in Newbury in Berkshire in 1993 was the first of eight consecutive seats they lost in by elections before the Labour landslide in 1997.

"This demoralised the party," said Paul Whiteley, Professor of Government at the University of Essex.

"It added to John Major's headaches as prime minister because the dissention within the backbench party was probably increased by the by election failures.

"His opponents inside the party said 'look he's leading us to defeat so we've got to do something about this.'

"So it stirs things up if you get a sequence of these and makes leadership difficult."

Real votes

That is a point Labour would have to acknowledge from more recent history. In 1998, Edward Timpson's victory for the Conservatives in Crewe and Nantwich was the party's first gained seat at a by election in 26 years.

Image caption Comedy candidates - like Mr Mozzarella - have long been a feature of by-elections

"If we take the by elections during the last parliament, Labour's share of the vote dropped in by elections by about seven points, which is pretty much where they were in the 2010 election," Professor Justin Fisher told me.

"The Liberal Democrats increased their vote share by about 2%, reflecting their improved fortunes in vote share, at least, in 2010.

"And although the Conservative vote share went up, it only did so marginally, by under half a percent, reflecting the fact that the Conservatives didn't make up that much ground in terms of the vote share between 2005 and 2010," he added.

So what is the perspective from opinion pollsters when it comes to by elections?

UKIP surge

They are forever attempting to canvass the mood of the whole country. By-elections only offer a geographically defined snapshot, but they are real votes in a real election.

Image caption George Galloway shook the political world with his win in Bradford West

For Andrew Hawkins, chairman of Comres, they are a useful tool.

But since the last general election, with by-elections primarily in safe Labour seats, the scope for extrapolation to explore the relative health of the Conservatives and Labour is limited, he argued.

"More significant, I think, is the fact that the Liberal Democrats have been squeezed in all of the by- elections since 2010, with the exception of one, where they increased their vote by 0.3%. In all of the other ones, they have been squeezed, including suffering some of their biggest vote share losses that they've ever seen."

And, at the same time, the UK Independence Party has been seeing the biggest vote share gains its ever enjoyed.

That is a trend that could have broader consequences for the Conservatives, and so the coalition.

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