I once enjoyed a superb breakfast at the Golden Fleece Hotel in the centre of Thirsk before an enjoyable afternoon’s racing and yesterday’s by-election in Thirsk & Malton offers, I think, considerable food for thought for the main political parties. The by-election was regarded by some as a referendum on the new Liberal Democrat-Conservative Coalition and by others as a postscript to the 2010 General Election.
The figures, with comparison to notional numbers from 2005 (the seat is a new one created out of the former constituencies of Ryedale and Vale of York) are interesting and I’m indebted to politicalbetting.com:
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The big losers are clearly Labour and while it’s tempting to suggest Thirsk wouldn’t be ideal Labour country (and that would be true), the slump in the vote suggests those who are not happy with the coalition are a long way from seeing Labour once again as a viable alternative. Indeed, it confirms my suspicion that while Labour did remarkably well on May 6th, it has had nothing to say about events since. Indeed, history shows that Labour is likely to lose further ground and seats at the next election as they did in 1955, Feb 1974 and 1983 after a period of non-Labour Government.
I would argue that the other losers on the night were the Conservatives. That may seem odd with the vote share up (albeit narrowly) and a comfortable majority of just shy of 12,000 but I think there are signs that all may not be well for the blue camp.
I was expecting a better result from the Tories – an increased vote share of maybe 5-7% with votes taken from the Liberal Democrats as well as Labour. Instead, there are signs that not only were the Liberal Democrats able to take votes from Labour but that the Conservatives lost support to UKIP who more than doubled their vote share.
So, what happened and what does it mean for the future ? The Liberal Democrats fought a good local campaign but many had predicted that the party’s vote would be squeezed with coalition supporters rallying to the Conservatives but the early evidence suggests something else is going on. I suspect ex-Labour supporters are turning to the Liberal Democrats as a mechanism for modifying the harsher aspects of the Conservative programme. A strong Liberal Democrat presence and vote within the coalition guarantees that the worst excesses of Conservative policy are held at bay. There was some evidence that anti-Tory tactical voting was still alive and kicking on May 6th and this result confirms its new role – as a mechanism to counteract the excesses of the right-wing Tories.
The other side of this is the performance of UKIP. Though polling poorly on May 6th and with their leader, Nigel Farage, a humiliating third in Buckingham, it seemed that UKIP was on the way out but it has re-discovered a place as a forum for protest votes from disenchanted anti-coalition Conservatives. Elements of the Tory-supporting media have condemned David Cameron for giving too much away to Nick Clegg and for abandoning key Conservative principles in order to broker a deal. The mood of discontent has clearly permeated parts of the Tory vote and while it’s not a lot now, it will be fascinating to see whether UKIP candidates in later by-elections can capitalise on the mood within the Conservative vote.
The Liberal Democrats did well last night and are establishing themselves as the soul, if not the heart, of the coalition. By this I mean that Nick Clegg’s primary role will be to articulate the softer aspects of the coalition programme and ensure that the more excessive policy ideas of the right-wing are kept out of Government. There is a big constituency of pro-Coalition supporters who do not want a red-blooded Tory Government but are happy to see the Conservatives managing the Government.
All in all, a good night for the Coalition and the Liberal Democrats and also for UKIP but a worrying night for the Conservatives and a downright bad night for Labour.