On the political horizon: by-election mayhem

The races for new city mayoralties and directly elected police commissioners could mean choice Westm

Westminster loves a by-election. Opinion polls can tell us only what people say they might do, which isn't even a reliable guide to what they truly think, let alone what will happen when they are ultimately confronted with a ballot paper. A good by-election reveals the mood of the electorate - albeit in just one constituency. It also helps parties test campaigning strategies. Labour tacticians still wince at the memory of the ill-judged deployment of top-hatted stalkers to pursue the (not at all aristocratic) Conservative candidate in Crewe and Nantwich in 2008.

And, of course, the by-election is often, in the worn idiom of political journalism, "a crucial test" for party leaders. Are they showing momentum? Are they fending off attacks? Is their message getting through?

So it is hardly surprising that the prospect of a rash of constituency skirmishes over the next year or so is generating a lot of chatter in parliament. In May of this year there will be referendums in 11 British cities on the creation of an elected mayoral job. If the answer is "yes", mayors will be chosen in November. Also due in November are votes to install the first 40 directly elected local police commissioners. Some of these jobs might be fancied by sitting MPs, especially on the Labour side where life in impotent opposition is proving dispiriting.

Two names often cited as possible candidates for the Birmingham mayoralty are Liam Byrne, shadow work and pensions secretary and MP for the city's Hodge Hill constituency, and Gisela Stuart, MP for Edgbaston. Of the two, fans of politics as spectator sport would much prefer the latter for the simple and faintly dishonorable reason that the battle to fill Stuart's seat would be by far the more exciting. Edgbaston is a bellwether constituency. It was the result - a massive swing to Labour - whose declaration on election night in May 1997 revealed the scale of the landslide to come. If Edgbaston had gone Labour, anything was possible.

Likewise, Labour holding the seat in 2010 was a telling sign that Cameron had failed to fully decontaminate the Tory party. If his campaign had gone anything like according to plan he really ought to have won that seat. The fact that he didn't is sometimes attributed to the personal standing of the local MP, sometimes also to a well-fought grass roots campaign. In any case, it's a marginal now and one that the Tories would very much like to snatch away from Ed Miliband.

Rivalling Edgbaston for interest is the Hampshire seat of Eastleigh, currently occupied by Chris Huhne. The former Lib Dem Energy Secretary faces criminal charges on a driving offence. He is, of course, entitled to be presumed innocent. If, however, he is convicted he would have to quit as an MP. The seat has, in the past, been a straight Lib Dem/Tory contest. A by-election along those lines could be gruesome for coalition relations. Quite a few Lib Dem seats match that profile, including constituencies held by cabinet ministers. Vince Cable, Business Secretary (Twickenham) and Ed Davey, Huhne's replacement as Energy Secretary (Kingston and Surbiton) would both be watching with keen interest how the Tories would campaign in an Eastleigh contest.

All of this is, of course, still very much in the realm of idle speculation and hypothesis. But that doesn't mean it isn't exercising a lot of minds in Westminster.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Ukip's Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
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Is the general election 2017 the end of Ukip?

Ukip led the way to Brexit, but now the party is on less than 10 per cent in the polls. 

Ukip could be finished. Ukip has only ever had two MPs, but it held an outside influence on politics: without it, we’d probably never have had the EU referendum. But Brexit has turned Ukip into a single-issue party without an issue. Ukip’s sole remaining MP, Douglas Carswell, left the party in March 2017, and told Sky News’ Adam Boulton that there was “no point” to the party anymore. 

Not everyone in Ukip has given up, though: Nigel Farage told Peston on Sunday that Ukip “will survive”, and current leader Paul Nuttall will be contesting a seat this year. But Ukip is standing in fewer constituencies than last time thanks to a shortage of both money and people. Who benefits if Ukip is finished? It’s likely to be the Tories. 

Is Ukip finished? 

What are Ukip's poll ratings?

Ukip’s poll ratings peaked in June 2016 at 16 per cent. Since the leave campaign’s success, that has steadily declined so that Ukip is going into the 2017 general election on 4 per cent, according to the latest polls. If the polls can be trusted, that’s a serious collapse.

Can Ukip get anymore MPs?

In the 2015 general election Ukip contested nearly every seat and got 13 per cent of the vote, making it the third biggest party (although is only returned one MP). Now Ukip is reportedly struggling to find candidates and could stand in as few as 100 seats. Ukip leader Paul Nuttall will stand in Boston and Skegness, but both ex-leader Nigel Farage and donor Arron Banks have ruled themselves out of running this time.

How many members does Ukip have?

Ukip’s membership declined from 45,994 at the 2015 general election to 39,000 in 2016. That’s a worrying sign for any political party, which relies on grassroots memberships to put in the campaigning legwork.

What does Ukip's decline mean for Labour and the Conservatives? 

The rise of Ukip took votes from both the Conservatives and Labour, with a nationalist message that appealed to disaffected voters from both right and left. But the decline of Ukip only seems to be helping the Conservatives. Stephen Bush has written about how in Wales voting Ukip seems to have been a gateway drug for traditional Labour voters who are now backing the mainstream right; so the voters Ukip took from the Conservatives are reverting to the Conservatives, and the ones they took from Labour are transferring to the Conservatives too.

Ukip might be finished as an electoral force, but its influence on the rest of British politics will be felt for many years yet. 

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