The Daily Telegraph survey (p9) compiled by the LGC elections centre at Plymouth University suggests that Tories are making a recovery even though the improvement looks insufficient to mount to a credible challenge at the next election.
The elections centre has analysed more than one million votes cast in 823 council by-elections since May 1997. The most consistent theme has been the poor turnout, averaging 28% and falling to single figures in some areas.
Professor Michael Thrasher said the 'retained vote' of the parties - a measure of how each hangs on to its main general or municipal election support at by-elections - was poorest for Labour. Whereas Tories and Liberal Democrats averaged abouve 80%, Labour's was 57%.
Since May 1997 the Tories have gained 140 seats and lost 33, hitting Labour and the Lib Dems in almost equal measure. But Prof Thrasher said Labour's losses were not a sign that it was in deep trouble. At the same point in the last parliament, the Conservatives had lost twice as many by-elections.
Overall, the by-election survey showed a swing of 5% to the Tories which, if repeated at the general election, would reduce Labour's majority to 60. The Tories need an 8% swing to deprive Tony Blair of his majority and 12% to win outright.