In the 1992-97 Parliament, there were three byelections in Conservative seats where Labour was placed second. Labour won them all, on swings of 29.1% (Dudley West, Dec 1994), 22.1% (Staffs SE, Apr 1996) and 17.2% (Wirral South, Feb 1997) – an average swing of 22.8%
Yesterday in Crewe and Nantwich, the Tories won on a swing of 17.6%. Not quite up to early Blair standards, but definitely getting into the ballpark.
Yesterday’s result has made the predictable waves – it’s being reported as something revolutionary, and even as professional a poll-watcher as Mike Smithson has been inspired to come off the fence and predict a Tory majority at the next election.
I don’t think this result tells us anything we didn’t already know, just as the council results earlier in the month only added to an increasingly clear picture of Labour unpopularity. But, as I said about those results, this byelection will ‘send a message’. Not to the Government – if they don’t know they’re unpopular by now then they never will – but to other voters. The result, and the breathless ‘first-time-in-30-years’ coverage of it, will communicate the message that real people are now willing to switch from Labour to Tory in a real Parliamentary election.
There’s a demonstration effect at work: once people see that others really are voting for a previously unpopular party, then their own willingness to do so will increase. Expect a further Tory poll boost, at least in the short term.
This means that anything remotely ‘relaunchy’ from Brown will be completely disregarded if it takes place during Cameron’s current afterglow. Cameron, on the other, hand, would be well advised to unveil something that looks serious, sober and substantial while he has this extra burst of sunshine. Triumphalism, while understandable, would be a mistake.