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Monday, 19 November, 2001, 15:30 GMT
Death of the by-election?
Past drama: David Bellotti wins Eastbourne in 1990
David Cowling

Between 1945-50 the Labour government defended 36 seats in by-elections and lost only one. But unfortunately for party managers, the British electorate has become much more volatile in the intervening years.

Ipswich - 2001 general election result
Lab, Jamie Cann - 19,952
Tory, Edward Wild - 11,871
Lib Dem, Terence Gilbert - 5,904
UKIP, William Vinyard - 624
Soc All, Peter Leech - 305
Soc Lab, Shaun Gratton - 217
Lab majority 8,081 (21%)
Turnout 38,873 (57%)
In fact, for several decades prior to 1997 the prospect of defending a by-election struck terror into the hearts of any government party. Between 1992-7, the Conservative government defended eight seats and lost every one.

By-elections have played an important role in our political history, as shown by a number of examples from recent years.

In the early 1980's, Roy Jenkins's near miss at the Warrington by-election and subsequent victory at Glasgow Hillhead (along with Shirley - now Baroness - Williams's success at Crosby) set the seal on the SDP's meteoric rise.

John Major is the last prime minister to have endured killer by-elections
Conversely, David Owen gave up the ghost with his continuity SDP when its candidate secured less votes than the Monster Raving Loony Party at the Bootle by-election in May 1990.

The Poll Tax was undoubtedly Margaret Thatcher's nemesis, but the Conservative loss of Eastbourne on a 20% swing in October 1990 hardly discouraged the leadership challenge mounted against her a few weeks later.

And any temptation John Major might have had to listen to those arguing for a swift "khaki" election following the end of the Gulf War, were swiftly dispelled by Labour's gain of Monmouth in May 1991.

The 1997 election dramatically changed the political landscape of Britain but also seemed to alter the rules of political engagement.

Government boast

Between 1997-2001, the Labour government did not lose a single seat of the eight it defended in by-elections. This was the first time in 50 years any government could boast such a record.

In fact, throughout Britain only one seat changed hands in a by-election during the last parliament and that was when the Conservatives lost Romsey to the Liberal Democrats.

Margaret Thatcher: By-election losses helped Tory MPs conclude they should dump her
So, is the age of the killer by-election dead? Given its political history, Ipswich ought to be living proof that closely contested seats are alive and just waiting for the first opportunity to kick any government foolish enough to wander by.

An Ipswich constituency has existed since 1832. This will be the eleventh by-election since then.

In the previous 10 contests, six resulted in the seat changing hands.

The seat has a long history as a marginal. In the 19 general elections between 1832-1918, the Ipswich constituency was a two-member seat. The Liberals won both seats in six of those elections, the Conservatives won both in four and there were split results in the remaining nine.

Labour tide

But here is where 1997 clouds the issue: in the election that year Labour's percentage majority rocketed from 0.6% to 21.6%; and in June this year it barely fell to 20.8%.

Seats with such majorities have fallen in the past but Ipswich simply reflects the scale by which the Labour tide in recent years has swept former marginals into safer territory.

Such movement does not make them impossible targets but it clearly makes them more difficult ones.

In the present political climate there seems little prospect of any surprising result in Ipswich.

Tony Blair has avoided the set-piece by-election batterings his predecessors suffered
Low turnout may distort the outcome but Labour's record of not having lost one of its own seats in a by-election since Glasgow Govan (which it lost to the SNP in 1988) seems unlikely to fall.

But the sensation seekers among us should take heart. Somewhere out there lies a constituency that within a year or two will give this government the shock of its political life.

Dramatic by-election results tend to reflect serious dissatisfaction.

The Conservatives are still struggling to raise their political game after two devastating defeats; the Liberal Democrats find it hard to oppose a Labour candidate in Ipswich whom they support as leader of Suffolk county council; and Afghanistan dominates the news agenda.

But it will not always be so. And then complacent politicians will discover that the by-election monster (like British politics) is not dead, only sleeping.


On the campaign trail


See also:

14 Nov 01 | UK Politics
Labour moves to counter apathy
07 Nov 01 | UK Politics
Ministers 'complacent over turnout'
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