As is often the case in the immediate aftermath of a by-election, the press and media are full of profound analysis, dire prognostications and deeply-veiled threats or warnings.
I pretty much worked through Eastleigh on the last thread which caused a ripple or two over on politicalbetting.com on Friday afternoon (again ho hum). My final thought is that assumptions that the UKIP "protest vote" will behave like the Liberal/Lib Dem "protest vote" of pre-2010 are just that, assumptions. We don't know what will happen to those from all parties and none that would currently vote UKIP when faced, in 2015, with choosing a Government which won't include UKIP. Will they stay with UKIP, return to their former loyalties or stay at home?
I don't know and in truth no one does. Past experience suggests a strong UKIP vote in European Parliamentary elections doesn't translate into a strong Westminster vote but the UKIP that was just an anti-European Party is evolving and is now a much more nuanced party - I called it Powellite the other day and stand by that description. It is the Party for the socially Conservative anti-European and that's not a small minority.
I was musing over a very pleasant breakfast this morning on the significance of by-elections and I was trying to think of the five most significant contests since 1979. There have been some 144 by-elections since Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in May 1979. Some seemed more significant at the time than they became with hindsight, others have achieved greater significance with the passage of time so this list obviously includes a huge amount of hindsight but here goes..
In reverse order (of course):
5 Darlington (1983):
This was important because it showed that while the SDP/Liberal Alliance had made a lot of progress in the brief period since its foundation, it hadn't made enough progress in Labour areas to translate into a serious threat and that Labour was more at threat from the resurgent Conservatives. Had the SDP won the seat, they might have done well enough in the subsequent General Election to finish second in terms of votes if not seats.
Winning Darlington didn't save Labour from a heavy defeat in June 1983 but it did ensure their status as principal Opposition and credible alternative Government.
4. Eastbourne (1990):
Hugely significant for both winners and losers. For the Liberal Democrats, it marked the start of the post-merger comeback, it was Paddy Ashdown's baptism of fire and confirmed the Party was still alive and kicking and would cause the Conservatives big headaches across the south.
For the Conservatives, it cemented the view that they could not win under the leadership of the Margaret Thatcher and she would be toppled just a few weeks later. In itself, Eastbourne did not bring down Margaret Thatcher but was a factor in her demise.
3. Brent North (2001):
Significant partly for the victorious Liberal Democrats who owed much of their win to their opposition to the Iraq War but a dreadful result for the Conservatives who crashed to a remote third.
This performance intensified pressure on Iain Duncan-Smith and, in tandem with a dreadful Party Conference spech, led to his removal in November and replacement by Michael Howard.
Many now think that had Duncan-Smith survived, the Conservative performance in 2005 would have been worse and they would probably not be in Government today.
2. Richmond (1989):
The post-1987 split between the Social Democrats and Liberals had escalated into open warfare and Richmond was one of its bloodiest encounters. The votes of the SDP and Liberals combined would have comfortably won the seat and the Conservative vote share crashed from 61% to 37% but thanks to the split vote, the Conservatives held the seat.
For the SDP, it turned out to be a high-water mark. Had Mike Potter won the seat, it's possible the SDP would have survived. The Owenites might have taken enough votes from the Conservatives at the 1992 election to allow Neil Kinnock to get in. For the Liberals, it was a low-point but the road back was built on a local strength the SDP simply didn't have.
The real significance is, however, that this election brought William Hague into Parliament. Had he lost the by-election, he would have faced a wait until 1992 for another chance. He would not have been in a position to challenge for the Conservative leadership in 1997 and would almost certainly not be Foreign Secretary today.
1. Beaconsfield (1982):
Held in the midst of the Falklands War, it was a walkover for the Conservatives. The first counterfactual to consider was whether the Liberals could have taken the seat if there had been no war. It's possible but unlikely in my view.
In third place for Labour was a young barrister fighting his first contest. His vote halved and he lost his deposit but it was valuable experience and his political "blooding" stood him in good contest when he went looking for a seat for the 1983 General Election.
The local Labour Party in Sedgefield took to the man and to his record and chose Tony Blair as their candidate. Had he not fought Beaconsfield or had the by-election not happened in the circumstances it had, Blair might not have been able to become an MP barely a year later.
By earning his colours in a hopeless by-election, Blair got the credentials he needed to get a seat and get into parliament and eventually to lead Labour to victory in 1997.