Yesterday's by-election results make grim reading for the Tories and particularly Labour. Labour failed to win back a heartland constituency and the Tories came within a few hundred votes of losing one of our safest seats.
What are the learning points? Here are my suggestions:
- There is no need for panic. This was a disappointing result for the Conservatives but let's put this into context... A YouGov poll for today's Telegraph puts the party at 39% (6% ahead of Labour). The poll also finds that (a) "Labour and the Conservatives are now level-pegging at 31 per cent on the key question of which is the best party to manage the economy" and (b) Mr Cameron has "become the first of five successive Tory leaders to be more popular than Tony Blair". Cameroons can complain that the Conservative leader hardly featured in the election literature put out by B&C Tories.
- The LibDems continue to be better at by-elections than us. ...and they still fight very dirty (see here and here) - as highlighted by Bob Neill (MP) in his victory speech. A local candidate was not enough to protect us from the LibDem ability to target resources so effectively on by-elections. CCHQ needs to understand what went wrong with the campaign. We need to be stronger for the next by-election when we might be defending a smaller majority or, more likely, our opportunity is to win a Labour seat.
- Beware the right flank. UKIP received 2,347 votes (beating Labour into fourth place). It was not an exceptional performance for UKIP but it was a sign that some Conservative voters were unhappy with Bob Neill's pro-European views and that UKIP's strategic message on immigration (linked to promises of tax cuts and public reform) will peel away some Tory voters if David Cameron ignores these issues. This may be enough to stop us winning certain seats.
- Labour are in trouble. Despite the high hopes of LabourHome (here and here) Labour had another terrible night. Will some Labour MPs be on the airwaves by lunchtime calling for Blair to go? Welsh Labour will be particularly disappointed at failing to win the Assembly seat for Blaenau Gwent as it could have restored a slender governing majority in Cardiff.
- Independents are difficult to budge. One lesson of Blaenau Gwent (and Wyre Forest) is that voters are happy to elect independents in the right circumstances and then re-elect them. That, to a great extent, has been the success of the LibDems' style of local campaign. All partisan incumbents are vulnerable to strong independent campaigns.