By-elections: a good night for Labour, a very bad one for the Lib Dems

Labour secured comfortable victories in yesterday's three by-elections, while the Lib Dems finished eighth in Rotherham.

Despite fear of another Bradford West-style upset, Labour comfortably won all three of yesterday's by-elections, in Rotherham, Middlesborough and Croydon North, retaining each seat on an increased share of the vote. But the real story of the night was how well UKIP performed and how poorly the Lib Dems did. Aided by the child fostering row, Nigel Farage's party finished second in Rotherham, winning 21.79 per cent of vote, up from 5.9 per cent in 2010 and its best-ever result in a Westminster seat. UKIP also came second in Middlesbrough and third in Croydon North.

By contrast, it was another terrible set of results for the Lib Dems. The party finished eighth in Rotherham (behind the BNP, Respect, the English Democrats and an independent), the worst result any major party has suffered since 1945, and lost its deposit after winning just 2.11 per cent of the vote. It also lost its deposit in Croydon North, where it finished fourth (behind UKIP) and won 3.5 per cent of the vote. The Tories also performed poorly, finishing fifth in Rotherham (behind UKIP, the BNP and Respect), the party's worst performance in any by-election in this parliament, and fourth in Middlesbrough (behind UKIP and the Lib Dems).

Having talked up its chances in Rotherham and Croydon North, Respect didn't come close to threatening Labour. Indeed, in the latter, the party actually lost its deposit after Lee Jasper, Ken Livingstone's former equalities adviser, finished sixth with 2.9 per cent of the vote. Respect performed better in Rotherham, where it fielded Yvonne Ridley, a former journalist who converted to Islam after her capture by the Taliban, and finished fourth with 8.34 per cent.

Given the disadvantages faced by Labour in Rotherham - Denis MacShane's resignation over false invoices, a divided local party, and, most recently, the UKIP fostering row - the party will be pleased that it managed to increase its share of the vote from 44.6 per cent to 46.25 per cent, a swing of 6.5 per cent from the Tories, who finished second in 2010. Few ever expected Labour to lose any of the six by-elections held this month but that the party performed well in each case is firm evidence of its increasing strength.

Sarah Champion, the newly-elected Labour MP for Rotherham. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.