New Statesman & Society, leader 19 April 1996
The miserable failure of the Conservative candidate in last week’s by-election suggests that they are doomed to lose the next general election
Voters’ behaviour in by-elections is notoriously untrustworthy as a means for predicting what they do in a subsequent general election. Every single one of the seven seats the Tories lost in by-elections between 1987 and 1992 returned to the fold at the 1992 general election. Only a fool would claim that, next spring or perhaps this autumn, Staffordshire South East (or rather the Tamworth constituency that will encompass all but 5,500 of its voters) couldn’t go the way that Vale of Glamorgan, Mid-Staffordshire, Monmouth and Langbaurgh went four years ago.
But it would be equally foolish to deny the significance of Labour’s victory last week. The Staffordshire South East campaign began in circumstances as favourable as they could have been for John Major’s administration. The economy was on the up at last, the government had survived the Scott report on arms sales to Iraq, and the backbench Tory rebellion over Europe appeared to be over. In Jimmy James, the Conservatives had the best by-election candidate they had fielded for ages – and the seat seemed pretty safe, with a majority of more than 7,100 over Labour.
In other words, it appeared that the by-election offered Major a good chance to demonstrate that the tide had turned for his party and that Labour’s popularity had passed its peak. If Labour failed to win, it would hardly be a disaster on the scale of Bermondsey in 1983 or Greenwich in 1987, but a Tory victory would do untold damage to Labour morale. Even a narrow Labour victory could be portrayed as proof that the party could not win the next election, much as happened with the Langbaurgh by-election in 1992.
That nothing of the sort happened has a little to do with the Tories’ bad luck: the mad cow crisis blew up just as the campaign got into gear, and it did immense harm in what is still a farming constituency. It’s also a tribute to an effective Labour campaign to get local council leader Brian Jenkins elected. But the scale of his victory – he took 60 per cent of the vote and a 13,762 majority over James – suggests something more profound at work.
Given the state of the economy, the affluence of the constituency, the quality of the candidate and all the rest, the Tories should at least have made a close fight of it. Their failure suggests an unprecedented level of disillusionment with the government among the voters – and it is difficult to imagine how the Conservatives can possibly counter it. Even if they manage to hang on until next spring before calling an election – for which they will need a combination of cooperation from the Ulster unionists and an absence of defections and deaths among their own MPs – and then pull off a 1992-style scare on Labour’s tax plans, it’s hard to imagine them being returned to office.
For Labour, the message from Staffordshire South East is as optimistic as it is pessimistic for the Tories. The result shows that the party can now win in Middle England even when the economy is going the Conservatives’ way. For a change, the opinion polls seem to be an accurate reflection of people’s voting intentions. If it keeps up the momentum, Labour could be looking at a Commons majority of 1945 proportions after the next general election. Tony Blair had good reason to look as pleased as he did when he gave his news conference outside the White House after hearing the result.
Of course, Labour cannot afford to be complacent, as Blair never ceases to remind us. But the big question in British politics is increasingly not whether Labour will win but what it will do once it has won. Up to now, Labour has preferred to be vague about its intentions on most things: indeed, it is only on certain constitutional reform issues that its detailed plans have been made public (although the broad outline of Labour policy is clear enough in several other areas) . But with the imminence of the general election, it is going to have to get specific sooner rather than later. If it does so without either alienating its traditional supporters or scaring off the middle-class voters who backed it in Staffordshire South East last week, Tony Blair will have pulled off a political trick that none of his predecessors since Harold Wilson has managed to master.