Sunday, 7 April 2019

Newport West in historical perspective

It probably won’t have escaped your notice, amidst all of the UK’s political chaos right now, that there’s just been a Westminster by-election for a seat in South Wales. Or, at least, you won’t have missed that if you’re the sort of person who reads this blog – in which case, read on, because this month we’ve got an absolutely bumper load of data for you on exactly how to judge last week’s electoral contest in Newport West. It was a fairly easy Labour hold for Labour's Ruth Jones (above), with a majority of nearly 2,000, and although Labour’s vote fell quite a long way, so did that of the Conservatives in second place. So: a dull night, then? Not so fast. Actually – and you’d expect to say this, but bear with it – if we look at Newport West in historical context, it tells us quite a lot.

How to see it? Well, we’ve crunched all the numbers on equivalent contests in the modern era – since 1979. We’ve taken a look at every byelection while the Conservatives were in office (between 1979 and 1997, and then again since 2010), in which the Tories and Labour started the race in first and second place. Just an arbitrary sample in a way, perhaps, but necessary to look at Labour’s performance while out of power, and to screen out all those byelections where either of the two big national parties were so far behind that relative moves in their vote share didn’t mean very much. It turns out that there have been 69 of these, so not just a tiny number, and two variables in particular seem of interest. First, how far did Labour’s vote share rise or fall in relation to the seat’s result in the previous General Election? And what was the two-party ‘swing’ between Labour and the Conservatives – that is, how much did Labour’s vote share fall or rise in comparison to the increase or decrease of the Tories’ score? All this just to gain a proper sense of how well or badly the two parties did in Newport last Thursday. Which we hope is a useful public service.

Now, as election guru Matt Singh from Number Cruncher Politics has pointed out, you would expect the main Opposition party to do well on these occasions, and for the governing party to do badly. Sending Ministers a message – usually a rude one – never goes out of fashion. So when we’re looking at these 69 byelections, it’s no surprise that almost all of them (57, to be precise) saw Labour gain on the Conservatives. And just under half (33, since you ask) saw Labour’s vote share at least stand still or increase – no mean feat when voters often think they can have a free swing in these contests, and vote for smaller parties to make a point rather than to form a government or ‘keep the other lot out’. So, in a straight fight with the Conservatives, Labour has usually done well in Parliamentary byelections.

They have even been doing well when we look at their performance since the Conservatives returned to office in 2010. You can see that from the chart you can see just below, and also from House of Commons reports on both the 2010-15 and 2015-17 Parliaments. Despite Labour’s many internal arguments and their unpopular leaders, only three of the Labour-versus-Tories byelections held since David Cameron entered Downing Street have seen Labour fall back against the Conservatives. In one of these, they experienced one true disaster – the loss of Copeland in Cumbria, which at the time appeared to herald near-apocalypse for the party at the ballot box. The other two examples weren't nearly so bad. In the ultra-safe Conservative seat of Sleaford and North Hykeham in 2016, they started off miles behind and only just slipped behind UKIP and the Liberal Democrats; in Lewisham East in 2018, there was a Lib Dem surge from third in Remainery London that still gave Labour a huge majority of over 5,600. In every single one of the other contests, they won – and often handsomely, as at Corby in 2012. They took a classic marginal then on a good and chunky twelve per cent swing, and looked if not set fair for power then at least very competitive and credible.

What springs out immediately from the data is that no such positives were visible in Newport West. Take a look at the top twenty falls in the Labour vote visible in the table that follows. In all of our sample of 69 seats, Newport West saw the ninth biggest fall in the Labour vote. That’s, well, sub-optimal, and it’s an even worse finding when you look at some of the absolute drubbings in the list above the Newport contest. Bermondsey in 1983, when Labour’s candidate Peter Tatchell was subjected to a horrendous and very personal campaign of vilification in part based around his sexuality, and in the last stages of which Conservative voters defected en masse to the Liberal candidate, Simon Hughes, to defeat Mr Tatchell. The disaster of Mitcham and Morden in 1982, a byelection held at the height of the Falklands War which saw the Conservatives manage the very rare feat of taking a seat from the Opposition as a sitting government. Crosby in 1981, in the first flush of the Social Democratic Party’s first success and with one of its most popular leaders, Shirley Williams, seizing the seat from nowhere. Warrington that same year, where Roy Jenkins came within two thousand votes of unseating Labour. And so on. Byelection catastrophes to make any Labour person wake in the middle of the night – which are the only scores that are worse than the party’s vote share tumble last week.

The story is similar if we look at the two-party swing, as you can see from the next table: here we also have the ninth worst head-to-head performance. Some of the same candidates for ‘worst Labour byelection of the modern era’ beat Newport West to the tape, including the aforementioned Copeland in early 2017, held at a time when Labour looked about as popular as a stink bomb in a lift. And famous contests such as Glasgow Hillhead in 1982, when Jenkins as the SDP’s first leader finally made it back to a Parliament as he surged past both Labour and the Conservatives. Oh, and Beaconsfield, where a young Tony Blair was routed by both the Conservatives and pushed back into third by the Liberals – again, as at Mitcham and Morden, during the Falklands War. Quite a list of debacles, and Newport West only just lags behind them.

What about contests in Wales, if we take them as a separate and discrete list? Well among Welsh contests, as you can see from yet another table ranking their performance by share of the vote (below), this is the worst Labour have done in the modern era in terms of both the change in the Labour vote and two-party swing. There have been quite a lot of falls in the party’s vote share here, actually reflecting in part Labour’s dominant status in some of these seats (hello Neath, Islwyn and Pontypridd). When you basically have to weigh the Labour votes rather than count them, it’s easy to fall a bit from a high perch. But reflect also on some of the contests where Labour has done badly in the past: on the Gower in 1982, there was an SDP surge, while the Welsh Nationalists, Plaid Cymru, did exceptionally well at Neath and Pontypridd in 1991 and 1989 respectively. Never has Labour done anything nearly this badly when the Tory vote held up, and indeed closed in on them a little.

So there we have it: the historical context of Newport West. We can argue about what it all means until we’re blue (or red) in the face, but you can’t argue with the numbers. This was a very poor performance by Labour. If we look only at Labour-versus-Conservative byelections, out of 69 straight fights it was the party’s ninth most dismal performance of the modern era in terms of both vote share and Labour-to-Conservative swing. Not much to write home about if you’re on the Left, really – and quite encouraging if you support the Conservatives, who despite being in almost complete chaos at Westminster are doing sort-of-okay in local council byelections as well.  

What seems to have happened this time is that there’s been a fracturing of the Labour and Conservative votes towards almost every other point on the electoral spectrum, with more liberally-minded and pro-European Remainers moving away from Labour towards Plaid, the Liberal Democrats and even the new Renew Party. Remember: even when seats are supposed to be for ‘Leave’, like Newport West, most of the Labour voters there were Remain in 2016. Given the movements of public opinion in general, there are also likely to be even more Remain now. Rather unsurprisingly, they don’t seem well-disposed towards Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s endless equivocations on the subject (or, to be honest, in general).

And Newport’s ex-Conservatives? They seem a bit friendlier towards the United Kingdom Independence Party than they were in 2016-18, a period during which the Conservatives’ leader, Theresa May, could however implausibly pose as the leader and sponsor of Leave as a whole. Now she’s had to bend to reality and compromise with the other 27 countries in the EU, her more Eurosceptical supporters are peeling away. The two main parties also seem to be tarred with the brush of the darkly comic imbroglio of Meaningful and Indicative Votes unfolding at Westminster. Frankly, they look ridiculous, and lots of voters are pretty angry about it.

This isn’t new. As this month’s blog has indicated again and again, byelections have often seen the big two’s dominance challenged. The Liberals and SDP threatened to tear up the whole rulebook in the early 1980s, and battered both the Conservatives and Labour at Glasgow Hillhead and Bermondsey. MPs defecting from the Conservatives to UKIP easily beat both the Tories and Labour in the late autumn of 2014, winning both Clacton and Rochester and Strood at a canter. So we’ve been here before, and we can use this backdrop as a comparator and guide to scale at least.

It’s not so clear that Newport West can serve as a signpost for the next General Election. As we noted after the Barnsley by-election all the way back in 2011, the way people vote in safe seats and in localised conflicts doesn’t necessarily map onto who they want to be Prime Minister. Oldham West in late 2015 indicated to many sceptical observers that Labour’s vote under Mr Corbyn was likely to hold up rather better than many experts thought – but Uxbridge in 1997, and Ipswich in 2001, proved to be false dawns for the Conservatives in Opposition. 

So what we’re not saying here is that Labour is going to do particularly well or badly at the next General Election. The indicators are mixed. The two main parties are pretty much neck-and-neck in the latest polls. Given the potential for party splits over Brexit, almost anything could happen on the national stage over the next few months. But what we are saying is that Newport West was a bad, bad night for Labour when you look at the historical context. Not really catastrophic like Bermondsey, Mitcham and Morden or Copeland, but pretty bad. A nasty flu, rather than pneumonia. But as we all know, if you don’t pay attention when there’s something wrong, it can get worse pretty quickly. Behind the celebrations in Newport West, Labour people must know that it was a very weak performance in which victory hid more than it revealed.