It already seems like ancient history, but the by-elections at Ealing Southall and Sedgefield were just eleven days ago and, together with the departure of Tony Blair, the political scene seems to have been transformed with Labour now enjoying the sort of poll leads that would return Gordon Brown to power with an increased majority and leave the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats floundering.
I made four trips to the Ealing Southall by-election, two over the weekends immediately preceding Polling Day, one on the Tuesday and much of Polling Day. I never did any work in Southall itself being sent over to the Northfield end of the Constituency as well as some delivery in Walpole and Elthorne.
It’s my experience that by-elections are fought at three levels – the Air War, the Ground War and the Underground War. Though it’s fair to say all by-elections are unique, this contest had some interesting twists and turns:
Air War: the Conservatives started well here with the introduction of Tony Lit and the subsequent defection of Gurcharan Singh and five Councillors. I suspect the Tories might have hoped and thought that Singh would bring a lot of “votes” with him but that didn’t prove to be the case. Gurcharan Singh was, like many defectors, switching parties from a case of personal pique rather than on deep issues of principle or so it seemed
Lit was a hugely unimpressive candidate as far as I could tell and he made very little impact in Northfield. Cameron put a lot of personal credibility behind him and Lit had his supporters among younger Sikhs but that simply didn’t translate into votes. One opinion I heard was that the Southall Sikh community has a strong core of older, blue-collar workers and the notion that the area was full of young professionals simply wasn’t true. By the last week, Lit wasn’t going to win and the question was whether he would come second.
To be honest, neither Virendra Sharma nor Nigel Bakhai sparkled either but were competent enough to avoid any spectacular gaffes or blunders.
Ground War: In the parts of the constituency where I worked, this was the Lib Dems and the Tories slugging it out like two boxers. I saw many groups of Tory activists pounding the streets and they were clearly working hard as were we. I think we out-delivered and out-performed them and probably came very close to winning Northfield and Walpole though I wasn’t at the count and have only third-hand information. In terms of leaflets, the Tories produced some good efforts and have clearly learnt lessons from Bromley & Chislehurst.
I saw little evidence of Labour apart from some leaflets and passing vehicles, notably on Polling Day. I genuinely thought and commented on politicalbetting.com that it was Littleborough & Saddleworth mark 2 with the incumbent party nowhere and the two challengers slugging it out but this wasn’t the case in Ealing Southall and clearly Labour worked Southall very hard.
What was disappointing was the turnout. Both us and the Conservatives put in a lot of effort but only 43% voted which wasn’t much better than at a local Council election. Many voters stayed at home and that perhaps was the most worrying aspect of the whole campaign especially when I recall the contests in the early to mid 1990s. The clear message is while there may be disillusionment and apathy aplenty, there’s no real anger (except among political activists of course!!)
Underground War: A lot more happens below the radar these days in by-elections. I know that both Labour and the Conservatives did plenty of telephone canvassing and used mailshots. Labour, it seems, did what they had to in terms of getting their vote out, especially in Southall.
In a three-week campaign, with virtually no local organisation and only one Councillor, it was very hard for the Liberal Democrats to set up that vital network of contacts. What seemed odd, however, was that the Conservative organisation locally also seemed poor. Where were all the activists and Councillors who had won power in 2006? To me, the Tories had failed to follow up that success adequately and relied on help from Party HQ and activists from London and elsewhere.
Conclusion: It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Labour have come out of the by-elections and the change of leader far more strongly than anyone could have anticipated.
The short campaign worked to Labour’s advantage, as did the weather too. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats worked hard but cancelled each other out in truth. Had either emerged clearly as the sole viable alternative, I think it possible Labour would have been in trouble. The fact was that the Conservatives were unable to build on the momentum gained in 2006 and the Liberal Democrats regained much of the ground lost then.
The other event that saved Labour was undoubtedly the departure of Tony Blair. It’s hard to believe how much the departure of Blair lanced the boil of Labour’s unpopularity. MY experience on the doorstep was that there was almost universal loathing and contempt for Blair but people were much better disposed toward Brown. It was clear that many voters who would have actively voted against Labour had Blair still been Prime Minister were much less motivated to vote against Brown.
Where do the by-elections leave the British political scene in the summer of 2007? As with the departure of Margaret Thatcher in November 1990, Gordon Brown has been able to convince a significant part of the electorate that a) he is not Tony Blair and b) he is listening to public concerns on issues like supercasinos and changing Government policy.
The Conservatives have been badly wrong-footed by all this though they knew it was coming. Some Tories assumed, incorrectly, that the public would not take to Brown but they forgot that by being the antithesis of Blair in terms of style and presentation, he would go down well with an electorate tired of Blairesque presentation.
The Tories have also been unlucky – David Cameron’s trip to Rwanda was ill timed but not by design. He has to weather the storm and come back to the fray in the autumn and hope that Brown won’t do what Major failed to do in 1991 and cut and run to the polls during the honeymoon.
For the Liberal Democrats, Southall and Sedgefield, while not spectacular, were good enough results to keep the party in the game. Had the party finished a bad third in Southall and made no impression in Sedgefield, the disaster of a major third-party squeeze and recriminations against Sir Menzies Campbell would probably have engulfed the party.
As it is, the party did well enough but there remains an underlying sense of unease. In many ways, we are back in the 1950s politically with Browneronism replacing Butskellism and the Liberal Democrats moving noticeably to the Right at least economically. If Labour in the 2000s is to be the Conservatives in the 1950s then victory in 2007, 2008 or 2009 will be a certainty.