Only one day to go till London and the local elections, but let’s have a quick break to discuss Crewe and Nantwich, the by-election for which is to be called on the 22nd May.
On paper Crewe and Nantwich is quite a distant target for the Conservatives. On its existing boundaries it requires a swing of just over 8% for the Conservatives to gain it, that’s the equivalent of a thirteen point lead in the national polls, so around the level some of the pollsters are indeed showing the Tories at in recent polls.
Historically we’ve seen bigger swings in by-elections than one sees at general elections – governments normally do badly in by-elections and pull back when it gets to actual elections. On paper, therefore, this should be a Conservative gain, no problem. In practice there are a couple of hurdles in the way of that.
While the regional breaks in individual polls aren’t reliable enough to tell whether a party is doing better or worse in a particular region, pollsters do occassionally publish aggregated results which give us a firmer picture of how the parties are performing in different regions and they’ve consistently shown the Conservatives performingly most strongly in the South and somewhat less so in the North. The pattern is similar to some degree in local elections – though there is it Yorkshire where the Conservatives are manifestly not performing as well as elsewhere, there are plenty of places in the North-west where they have produced some strong showings. Either way, if the Conservative’s aren’t doing as well in the North as in the South Crewe and Nantwich looks a somewhat harder task. On the other hand, Gwyneth Dunwoody was a particularly respected MP, so past elections probably include a strong personal vote for her which will now be up for grabs.
Secondly there is the strong Conservative track record at being hopeless at by-elections. To some degree that is because they haven’t had many good opportunities, very few by-elections have occured in seats where the Conservatives have a realistic chance of winning, but even in by-elections in their own seats they have shown themselves inept (Bromley and Chislehurst anyone?). In contrast the Liberal Democrat machine is finely honed. In by-elections in government held seats where the electorate wants to give the government a kicking the campaign is often about the parties positioning themselves as the best party to deliver it. Since the Lib Dems have a reputation for pulling off spectacular by-election gains, and the Conservatives – to put it kindly – don’t, this is somewhat easier for the Lib Dems.
In this case the Liberal Democrats are in a distant third place and while the Conservatives look almost certain to keep their existing candidate Ed Timpson, the Lib Dems previously selected candidate has stood down (as I understand is the norm for Lib Dem candidates in seats where a by-election occurs) and – since he lived in Derbyshire giving opponents an open goal to shoot at – I expect they’ll pick someone new to carry the flag. This time the Conservatives do at least have a head start in making sure they are recipients of anti-government votes, but we shouldn’t underestimate the Liberal Democrat’s skill at by-elections and the Conservatives’ weakness.
Who does win this by-election is important. One party or the other will already have their tails up from taking or retaining the London mayoralty. If the Conservatives win it will be a huge boost to them, give them great momentum and will be painted as a groundbreaking achievement after 26 years without a by-election gain. If they lose their opponents will say that it proves they aren’t doing well enough to win a majority at the next election, they aren’t doing well enough outside the south and their support in the polls fades away when people get to the ballot box. This one will undoubtedly be built up as a big test for Cameron, so it he fails it it will dent his momentum.
For Labour, if they hold the London mayoralty and then hold Crewe and Nantwich it will be building into a nice perception of fighting back. If they loose both they are going to really look as though they are on the ropes. Finally for the Lib Dems, unless they chose to build them up themselves there shouldn’t be any expectations for them to live up to – they are in a distant third place and needn’t risk their reputation on this one. The problem is that by-elections are the life blood of the Liberal Democrats, the elixir that gives them publicity, momentum and show that Lib Dems can indeed “win here”. Everyone that they don’t win is a missed opportunity.
UPDATE: The Lib Dems have announced their candidate, she (and other candidates as they turn up) is on the Crewe and Nantwich page here. Another thought, the writ for the by-election was issued on Wednesday and, 15 days afterwards ignoring bank holidays and weekends, polling day on the 22nd May is the earlier day possible to hold it. What this means is practice is that the Conservatives won’t be able to call the Henley by-election on the same day – the soonest it could be done is the following week.