Reading the runes from a by-election result is always problematic. The local nature of the event means that it’s hard to draw national trends, while protest votes and tightly focussed campaigns by all parties have an effect that won’t be present at a general election.
That said, who are the winners and losers from Newark? In many ways, none of the parties will be completely satisfied. Some, though, have lost more than most.
Starting with the Conservatives, they obviously have the most to celebrate since they won (or, rather, held) the seat. This is an achievement in itself, since the Tories haven’t previously won a by-election while in government for 25 years. It’s still a heavily reduced majority, which would be bad news if extrapolated nationally. But, overall, this is a reasonably satisfying result for CCHQ.
For UKIP, the glass is closer to half full. A huge surge in support lifted them into second place, but they were still nowhere near causing a genuine upset. The confident pre-election predictions from the UKIP camp that they were at least going to run the Tories closely, if not snatch the seat, have turned out to be rather more hubristic than they would like. Possibly more worryingly for UKIP is that their percentage of the vote was down compared to the nearest equivalent area in the European elections. It’s hard to avoid the sense that they’ve already peaked.
Labour, on the other hand, will definitely not be happy. Despite brave attempts to spin the result by talking of a tactical switch to the Tories to keep UKIP out, the reality is that for the main opposition party to lose ground in a mid-term by-election does not bode well for their general election hopes. Labour would have held on to second place if they’d at least retained their voters from the 2010 general election, and even a smallish increase would have made the Conservative majority uncomfortably close. Losing vote share and dropping to third place, even in a highly tactical election, is a bad result whichever way you look at it.
No amount of spin, though, can mask the disaster which befell the Liberal Democrats. Falling from a close third to a distant sixth, behind both the Greens and an independent, and shedding nearly 90% of their vote along the way is about as bad as it can possibly get. Tactical voting may well have played a part, but only a part.
Results for the other candidates were all much of a muchness. Independent Paul Baggaley came fourth, beating both the Greens and the Lib Dems, but none of the other minor parties and by-election bandwagon jumpers got more than a handful of votes. The Greens got a thousand votes, give or take a few, but a semi-rural seat in the Midlands is never going to be natural territory for their brand of metropolitan angst.
Stepping back from the individual parties, though, the overall voting pattern is worth looking at. The Conservatives lost around 10,000 votes, labour lost 5,000 or thereabouts and the Lib Dems lost 9,000. Meanwhile, UKIP gained 8,000. Given that the minor parties don’t amount to anything much in this consituency, that’s more votes lost than gained. So where did they all go?
The answer, of course, is that many of them were lost to non-voters. The by-election turnout was only 52.6%, compared to 71.4% in the general election. In 2010, the non-voters amounted to around 29% of the electorate, which is more than those who voted for second-placed Labour but a long way short of the victorious Conservative candidate. In the by-election, the “I don’t have an opinion” party made up 48% of the electorate. That’s the biggest proportion, by quite a large margin.
Another thing worth noting here is that if Labour had held on to all their votes from the general election, and picked up most of the lost Lib Dem votes – something which is not an unreasonable ambition – they would have won this seat. With UKIP splitting the right of centre vote, and the Lib Dem collapse removing the main left-wing competitor to Labour, Labour should have been quids in. But it didn’t happen that way.
To a certain extent, then, a significant number of voters seem to have been sufficiently fed up with the three main parties to desert them, but were not willing to vote UKIP in protest. That’s probably more true of Labour and the Lib Dems than the Conservatives, but even the Tories lost more votes than UKIP gained. That loss of voters to apathy is probably the thing that will concern the Conservative and Labour leaderships the most, since if there’s one thing that UKIP voters are not, it’s apathetic.
As we saw in the European elections, a low turnout benefits UKIP. Both David Cameron and Ed Miliband need to find ways to reconnect with former supporters who have simply given up on politics rather than switched to another party. And that is probably a more pressing need than attempting to appeal to UKIP voters.