There's a case for saying that the two by-elections on Thursday last week weren’t particularly good news for any of the three major parties. The biggest loser was David Cameron with the Tories pushed into third place in both Sedgefield and Southall.
Cameron has suffered a sharp reversal of fortunes in the last couple of months. Until recently he could do no wrong. By presenting the Tories as a “caring” party of the centre, he had pushed them consistently ahead of New Labour and seemed set to trounce Gordon Brown.
But then Cameron tried to dump Tory support for grammar schools, only to cave in before a rebellion from his right wing. This retreat was continued in the shadow cabinet reshuffle at the start of July, when he demoted David Willetts and Francis Maude, the shadow ministers most disliked by the right.
The failure – especially of the Tory campaign in Ealing Southall – has caused further damage to Cameron. It ran aground amid the shoals of complicated local politics, particularly when it emerged that the Tory candidate, running under the label of “David Cameron’s Conservatives”, had recently donated money to the Labour Party.
Various right wing backbenchers are emerging from the woodwork to denounce Cameron for the Southall “fiasco”. It suddenly seems possible that his leadership could be undermined by the kind of internal sniping that wore down all his predecessors from John Major onwards.
Cameron’s advisers admit that he underestimated Gordon Brown and therefore was taken aback by the ruthlessness with which Brown has sought to distance himself from Tony Blair.
All the same, the by-elections weren’t that good for the government. Labour held Sedgefield and Southall, both ultra-safe seats, despite swings of respectively 11 percent and 5 percent to the Liberal Democrats. These swings come after Labour lost millions of votes in both the 2001 and 2005 general elections.
Martin Kettle pointed out in last Saturday’s Guardian that in Sedgefield, “Phil Wilson’s winning share is fully 20 points down on 2001 – not great in anyone’s language. It is a warning that those lost Labour voters are not yet coming home significantly. It is difficult to call this a Brown bounce.”
The Tories are in the same plight. Anthony King of Essex University told the Financial Times, “What these by-elections tell you is that the Conservatives have yet to recover from their loss of reputation in the 1990s.”
The unpopularity of both the big parties should work to the advantage of the Lib Dems. And indeed they hung onto their second place in Ealing Southall and pushed the Tories into third place in Sedgefield. This underlines that the war in Iraq remains a major issue for many voters.
But while these results may have bought time for the Lib Dem leader, Menzies Campbell, they don’t compare with the by-election triumph his party enjoyed in 2003, when they won Brent East from Labour on a 29 percent swing.
So none of the major parties have any real cause to celebrate. Cameron’s difficulties must be very welcome to Brown since they mask his own.
Brown has given New Labour a cohesion and impetus that were completely lacking in the last days of Blair’s reign. And he has turned the tables on Cameron in the opinion polls.
But this shift isn’t enough to guarantee a Labour victory in the next general election. Speculation that Brown may call a snap election in the autumn or, more likely, in May or June next year has been growing. But the by-election results give a measure of the mountain he still has to climb before he can be sure of winning an early poll.
They also confirm there has been no real return of popular confidence in either Labour or the Tories. This is very important for Respect.
Cameron’s weakness means that there is no Tory juggernaut that Labour can use to scare its ex-voters back. And Brown’s weakness means that the space to the left of New Labour remains open. It’s up to us to fill it.