UK by-elections: Labour gets another spanking

Last month there was a GD thread – “UK local elections. Labour gets a spanking” – http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=260987 – about the Labour Party making a poor showing in local elections in Britain, apparently due to a backlash against the Blair government’s actions in involving the country in the Iraq War.

I heard on NPR’s Morning Edition this morning that there were just two by-elections for Parliament seats, both of which Labour was defending. In one, Labour barely held on to the seat; in the other, it lost it to the Liberal Democrat candidate. In both, the candidate of the Conservative Party (which also supported the war) ran a distant third.

Can some British Dopers fill us in on what this means? Is the tide turning against Labour? And, if so, who is better positioned to benefit from that – the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats? And – when is the next general election for Parliament?

The maximum time between Parlimentary elections is five years, so it will be on or before June 7th, 2006.

As for the rest, I’ll leave that to a local…

As a side note, http://www.election.demon.co.uk/strengths.html shows Labour as having lost four seats since the 2001 election, with their majority going from 167 to 159.

Is four seats in three (non-election) years a lot to lose, by standards of British politics?

If Labour has a 159-seat majority in a House with 635 members – that’s a 25% majority! By American standards, that’s overwhelming! I can’t remember the last time either party held a 25% majority in either house of Congress. Is this measure of predominance typical in British politics?

Not really. It’s fairly common for the ruling party to struggle in by-elections - comparable to the mid-term votes in the US. What is significant is where Labour is losing the seats: throughly traditional Labour-voting areas. Losing Leicester South, and Brent earlier in the year, should be unthinkable for the Labour party. In both cases the war seems to have been the major issue causing this, particularly with Leicester’s large Muslim population. There was also a notable vote for the Respect party, which has only been around a year, and is essentially an anti-war movement.

No, it’s exceptional. It’s one of the largest majorities that has ever been. Back in 1997, there was an immense swing away from the Tories to Labour, due to the former having almost self-destructed and the latter having become appealing to people who never before would have voted Labour. And little changed in 2001.

The Conservatives would never have won either seat. Being beaten into third place is significant. The Lib Dem’s anti-war stance has certainly helped them, added to the fact that the Tories still haven’t managed to get over the infighting and lack of public appeal which beset them in the 90s. What’ll happen in the general election is anybody’s guess…

Cherchez l’Irak.

…and the usual dislike of parties with whopping majorities that think they own the place.

I do, however, think Kennedy is counting his chickens before they’re hatched. IMO when it comes to a general election, it’ll be back to business as usual, and I really don’t think the Tories can hack it. Prediciton: Labout returned for a third term, under Blair, but with a significantly reduced majority. Similar situation to that which Major found himself in at the 1992 election.

I wouldn’t say they would never have won either seat, they have held both in the past 30 years, it would certainly have been exceptional for them to win either. I think what we are seeing the start of in the past few by-elections is the kind of negative voting that did for the Tories - voters are more concerned with voting against Labour than for anyone else and will vote for the party that they perceive to have the best chance of beating Labour in that seat.

I agree to a point, but I believe it’s important to remember that these are by-elections, locals and europeans. They’re votes where people can feel (rightly or wrongly) that they can register a protest vote without having to consider who they’re voting for too heavily, since the consequences will be minimal. As always seems to be the case with the Lib Dems, I strongly suspect that the swings they’ve shown will fall back as people actually try to imagine Charles Kennedy as Prime Minister. I think jjimm is exactly right about the probable results of a general election in the near future, barring some dramatic adverse event for Blair or some miracle on the part of the Tories.

Chalk me up as another person who thinks that the recent election results were more a protest vote against the war, then an actual large shift against Labour. People perceive local, european, and by elections as not really mattering, so they used them to “punish” Labour for the war. Although the war is an important issue, for most people it is not as important as home issues like the economy, health, education etc. And on these issues, Labour are ahead of the Conservatives.

A recent poll found that while “Tony Blair’s rating among voters has plummeted since last year’s local elections” he is still rated more trustworthy than Howard, and also more competent.

Possibly more importantly:

"Labour is more widely trusted to run the economy than the other parties, the survey indicates.

Labour is seen as having the best leadership team. "

People are pragmatic at the end of the day, and if they think one party will run the country better than another, that party will win, even if it got us into a very unpopular war. I agree with jjimm - Labour under Blair will win a third term, with a reduced majority.

In essence it was a bad night for labour but a catastrophic one for the Conservatives. The likelihood is that Labour may lose some seats at the next election but the Conservatives will probably lose seats as well, the Liberal Democrats being the likeliest gainers. The Government is not popular but most people like the Conservatives even less. These are the only parties with a realistic chance of winning the next election, the Liberal Democrats currently hold around 56 seats out of 650 or so. As Labour currently has a majority of over 150 against all the other parties combined it is difficult to see any result other than a Labour victory at the next election. Thus Blair will continue as Prime Minister for the forseeable future. The next election will take place at a time of the Government’s choosing but not later than June 2006. Most expect it will be next May.

What would happen if there is no majority? Would we be likely to see a Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition?

This is the most ‘natural’ pairing, politically (though Labour is way more right wing than it used to be), and there is precedent for it: the “Lib-Lab pact”. Back in 1977, the Liberal Party (as it was then) propped up a minority Labour government. It ended in acrimony the next year, and Labour lost the next election.

My prediction for the next election is that Labour will lose another chunk of seats but still hold on to power, the Tories will take back a few as some of the disaffected right-wing voters who turned their back on the Tories in the last two elections decide that Labour has screwed them too and they might as well vote Conservative again, and the Lib Dems will pick up a few more seats as well, although not enough to take them out of third place.

More interesting will be what happens with the smaller parties. Look for UKIP (that’s the UK Independence Pary, an anti-EU group) to gain a seat in the Commons, and the British National Party (read: Bunch of Nazi Prats) to get a disturbing number of votes as well (although not enough for a Commons seat). The Scottish and Welsh parties will probably hold their current seats with no gains or losses. And the Greens will get ignored as per usual.

In general Labour’s credibility is seriously suffering, but the Conservatives aren’t really offering an alternative (especially as Labour seems to have adopted most of their policies anyhow) and the Lib Dems still suffer an image problem (plus, of course, they cheerfully admit they want to raise taxes to pay for the public services people think they ought to have but that someone else should pay for).

It’s the election after next that needs watching. By that point I’m guessing Gordon Brown will either have taken over as PM or will have self-destructed in some political gaffe, and Labour will lose as the Conservatives gain a very small majority. The Lib Dems and Labour will fail to form a formal coalition, but will shoot down all the Tory Party’s proposals, and nothing will get down. Happy times all around.

You make it sound like the Lib Dems are the only party in the field with any honesty and common sense.

What exactly is the Liberal Democrats’ “image”? Since they have never been in power since the Liberals merged with the Social Democrats, they don’t get much press coverage in the U.S. Over here, our understanding is that Labour is a party of labor unions and socialists that has become much less socialistic in the past decade and come to resemble our Democratic Party in most respects; and the Conservative Party used to be the party of tradition and the gentry, but Thatcher transformed it into a party of business interests and economic libertarianism. But of the Lib Dems we know very little. Presumably it is a “centrist” party, but what does that mean in the context of contemporary British politics? What distinguishes the Lib Dems from the Tories? And what distinguishes them from Labour?

Well, those are political judgements, but they’re the only ones with integrity (probably because they haven’t been in power for years).

Depends who you ask, but the negative image is of beardy granola munchers with good intentions but little practical ability. Alternatively, you could see them as the only voice of reason in a partisan largely two-party system - ostensibly because they have so little to lose.

A fair assessment, IMO, though the socialism of Labour is long gone; it was already on the way out before Blair took charge 10 years ago this week.

It now holds ground to the left of Labour - actually promising tax increases, opposed the Iraq war, etc.

Because of the nature of the first-past-the-post system, very little. They could erode Labour’s support from the left, but it’s not likely to have many practical results. If the UK had proportional representation, things would be different.

As said, they’re further left than both parties now. Perhaps someone actually in the UK could fill in on specific policy issues.

As jjimm rightly points out, one of the advantages of being far out of power is that you don’t have to worry about eating your words when you get into power (because it’ll be a long, long time until you do). At present the Lib Dems have 55 seats in the House of Commons; compare this to the Conservatives’ 163 and Labour’s 407. This is still a signficant level of representation, however, considering that the next largest groups are all regional parties: the Democratic Unionists (from NI), Ulster Unionists (NI), the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymry (from Wales) with 6, 5, 5 and 4 seats respectively.

The Lib Dem leadership seems to be generally well-regarded; the previous leader Paddy Ashdown in particular was well-liked, and the current one, Charles Kennedy, is a jovial sort if not necessarily the type to radiate gravitas. The main problem seems to be the rest of the party, who do come across as a well-meaning but rather feckless bunch, an impression unfortunately borne out by experience – I seem to recall that at the last general election sixty Lib Dem candidates failed to fill out their paperwork correctly, and somebody in the Lib Dem office in Wales recently emailed their election strategy straight to the Welsh Labour office. It doesn’t inspire confidence.

That said, they have distinguished themselves in the past year by taking a principled opposition to the war on Iraq (demanding more solid proof of an imminent threat from early on), which set them apart from both Labour and from the Conservatives who also supported the war. Their economic policies can to a certain extent be characterized as “tax-and-spend”, but on the plus side they’ve maintained full transparency on where the taxes would be implemented (minor increases in sales taxes on some luxury goods, for example) and on what the monies earned would be spent, which also contrasts with the vague rhetoric and handwaving of their Parliamentary counterparts.

The Lib Dems have been making small but steady gains in recent years, although they haven’t quite yet managed to overhaul their image in any sort of effective manner. Their current goal is not to win power but to overtake the Conservatives; in the rebranding area they’ve already made several references to themselves as the real Opposition party, and this may yet resonate with the populace. They still have a long way to go.

It’s almost a cliche, but the voting system really does discriminate againts a third party. The Lib Dem’s seats simply do not represent the proportion of votes they receive.

Just for the benefit of non-UK readers, it’s worth pointing out that there is a very well-established pattern in UK politics which goes like this:

  1. The third party (Lib Dems) do well at some local elections and bye elections, with the occasional spectaclar victory getting them quite excited.

  2. The Lib Dems claim this is the start of a significant turning of the tide, and that at the next general election they stand a realistic chance of winning or at least coming second. The media point out that they always say this but it never happens. The Lib Dems say ah, but this time is really different.

  3. There is acres of media coverage devoted to this possibiity, all the way up the Gen Election.

  4. The General Election is held and the Lib Dems trail a distant third to Labour and the Tories, their hopes having being dashed once more.

This cycle has been going on for as long as any current voters can remember. This time will be no different. The timing of the next Gen Election can’t be predicted with any certainty, but I think Tony will call it next year. Labour will win, Tories second, Lib Dems a distant third. Same as ever.

If the Lib Dems really were going to make a major breakthrough, it would have been under their previous leader, Paddy Ashdown. A very capable and intelligent politician who did a lot to overhaul their image and make them seem credible. But they still came third. Charles Kennedy isn’t the jovial chump some people thought, and has done his job well since taking over. But it will still be the same old story.

So when is the UK going to have proportional representation? I seem to remember a national referendum on that was one of Blair’s campaign promises – 10 years ago.