Saturday, 7 June 2014

Newark was Hardwork for the Conservatives

Going on to politicalbetting on Friday morning and you'd be mistaken for winning the Conservatives had just won the General Election by a landslide - indeed, one numpty predicted the very same. Of course, all that had happened was that the Party had retained the Newark seat in a by-election.

Nonetheless, the sense of relief among the Conservative majority which now dominates pb was palpable and laughable. To hold on to a seat which was won at a General Election with a majority of 16,000 seems the measure by which Tories value success these days. It seems they have fallen a long way but still have much further to fall.

By-elections are strange animals and no two are the same - broadly speaking, they fall into categories, the expected and the unexpected. Newark was one of the "expected" - the sitting MP, Patrick Mercer, who had taken the seat with the same name but different boundaries from Labour in 2001, had made it clear he would resign his seat if found guilty by the House of Commons Standard Committee. On that basis, the local Conservatives (with outside help doubtless) had been active in the seat for months leafleting, canvassing, selecting a young if flawed candidate etc. while the other parties had done nothing.

The "expected" by-election (which can be due to criminal or medical issues) is an opportunity for both the incumbent Party and the principal Opposition to be active before the gun is fired and establish their credentials within the seat. In Newark, the main Opposition (based on the 2010 General Election result) was Labour but it seems they did nothing in advance of the by-election being called. This could be either because of a paucity of local resources or because Labour recognised that the effort of winning Newark in a by-election (and then trying to hold it in the General Election less than a year later) could not be justified while other far more marginal and likely seats needed the time and effort.

Such a vacuum would in the past have drawn in the Liberal Democrats who polled 20% in the seat in 2010 and might have been expected in times past to have ramped up the activity but the Party is not what it was and the need to defend Council seats and concentrate effort in Parliamentary seats held meant Newark was not fought - to my knowledge, no Lib Dem MP even visited the seat.

Enter then UKIP, the new insurgent Party. Unfortunately, they had no local base to work with and didn't even start working the seat effectively until the by-election was called leaving them at a huge disadvantage. Yet, buoyed by their win in the European parliamentary elections and strong local elections, it began to appear possible around the Bank Holiday weekend, that UKIP might pull of a huge shock and capture Newark and a couple of polls putting the Party within spitting distance of the Conservatives seem to have caused panic at Conservative HQ.

The Conservatives were forced to throw the kind of effort and resources into defending a safe seat that I haven't seen in over thirty years of active politics. David Cameron visited the seat FOUR times - before Tony Blair went to Uxbridge in June 1997, it had been the convention that Prime Ministers did not campaign in by-elections.

In addition, the Conservatives press-ganged every MP and selected candidate into visiting the seat - they had (reportedly) 600 activists there the weekend before polling and 1,000 on Polling Day itself - all this to defend a seat with a 16,000 majority in a by-election long planned and prepared for.

In the end, the Tories were forced to resort to desperate anti-UKIP tactical voting to try and head off the challenge from the fairly useless Roger Helmer and his Party who were comprehensively outgunned and outspent in the final week.  It's been estimated the Conservatives spent £250,000 in Newark - all this to defend a seat with a 16,000 majority.

Defeat to UKIP would have been cataclysmic for the Conservatives - instead, they threw the kitchen sink and most of the kitchen at a safe seat and squeezed out a 7,000 majority.

Labour ducked the fight - probably wisely - and won't be too bothered by a small drop in share and third place. Indeed, the Labour result looks pretty good in a seat far removed from those of relevance to winning the General Election and despite the siren call of anti-UKIP tactical voting.

For the Liberal Democrats, the result was predictably poor - hopes of keeping the deposit were cruelly snuffed out but, as with Labour, Newark doesn't feature in the Liberal Democrat General Election strategy.

UKIP can draw some positives from the result - 26% from nowhere is pretty good and though their political machine couldn't mean the Conservatives in the final few days they should learn some valuable lessons. One huge problem is trying to repulse the tactical voting argument deployed by the Conservatives. There are a lot of people who see UKIP as the ultimate "nasty" party and that's something Nigel Farage and his team are going to have to recognise.

So, one cheer perhaps for the Conservatives but the polls still show Labour in front and the Tories will not be able to put into every constituency the effort they put into Newark in the past week. Labour are doubtless working their key marginals and the real battle will be fought in 100 or so seats next year of which Newark will not be one.

No comments: