Luck is an essential characteristic in a politician, and it looks as if prime minister Tony Blair, like Margaret Thatcher before him, has it in spades.
She and her governments were never wildly popular with the electorate, but a divided opposition and the impact of random shock events like the Falklands war allowed her to win three successive general elections. Her successor, John Major, did win in 1992, but he foundered five years later as Labour and the Liberal Democrats mounted a pincer movement against the Conservatives.
The British electoral system gives weight not only to how many votes you get but where they are cast. In London in May, for example, while Labour and the Conservatives effectively tied for first place in terms of the number of votes they attracted, Labour won 200 more seats across the capital than its main rival.
An even starker contrast came in Croydon LBC. For the third election running the Conservatives decisively out-polled Labour, but remained stuck in opposition. The explanation is clear. The Conservatives piled up votes surplus to requirements in their own 'safe' seats - the average turnout in Conservative held wards in Croydon was 40%. Labour, by contrast, needed fewer votes to win in its territory - average turnout 34% - and concentrated its campaigning on those few wards where the result was in doubt. Liberal Democrat targeting in the Coulsdon East ward, where one of their candidates topped the poll and managed to prevent a Conservative clean sweep, also hurt the Conservatives.
Similar patterns of differential abstention and Lib Dem intervention worked against the Tories nationwide at both the 1997 and 2001 general elections. If they do so again in 2005/6, Labour's majority is likely to be secure.
No majority, however large, is safe from a sea change in voters' attitudes. Here the problem for the Conservatives is that the opposition to Labour, which undoubtedly exists, has so far failed to coalesce around them. It was local mavericks rather than the Conservative mayoral candidates in Hartlepool and Middlesbrough who attracted the malcontents; it has been the Lib Dems rather than the Tories to whom inner city voters have turned to protest against Labour one-party states.
Of course the Conservatives have had flashes of success and the LGC Council Control Map looks bluer this year than it has for a decade. But, even as just last week's by-elections clearly demonstrate, progress is uneven. The Conservatives easily held on to two seats in North Tyneside MBC, one being vacated by the borough's new mayor. They also gaineda seat from Labour in Nottinghamshire CC with a swing of nearly 8% compared to the last time it was fought coincident with the general election in 2001. Extrapolated across the country such a result would be enough to deprive Labour of its Parliamentary majority - a triumph for Iain Duncan Smith.
However, the Conservatives also contrived to lose three seats to the Lib Dems on the same day. The Lib Dems had not even fielded a candidate in Goetre Fawr, Monmouthshire CC in 1999, and in Verulam, St Albans BC there was a swing against the Conservatives of almost 6% - and a five point fall in the Labour vote - compared with the full council elections just eight weeks previously. In both cases it looks as some electors are still prepared to vote tactically to keep the Conservatives out. As Oscar Wilde might have said - to lose one seat may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose two . . .
The serious point is that local by-elections, so often the harbingers of a political trend, show scant sign of voters being prepared to gang up against Labour. The sight of opposition parties still taking seats off each other, as happened at the Romsey Parliamentary by-election in May 2000, must have Millbank rubbing its hands with glee. Unless the Conservatives begin to record a clean sheet against both their opponents we would not bet against another Labour government - however much electors complain about the present one.
Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher
Directors, LGC Election Centre, University of Plymouth
By-Election results June 2002
Council Ward Result Majority Turnout%
06 June 2002
East Ayrshire Crookedholm, Lab held 4.1 over SNP 45.0
Moscow, Galston West & Hurlford North
13 June 2002
Luton BC Challney Lab held 9.2 over LD 24.6
Manchester MBCBenchill Lab held 56.9 over LD 8.8
Scarborough DCEastfield Lab gain from Ind29.7 over Ind 16.3
Tendring DCSt. Johns LD held 15.7 over Con 28.2
Three Rivers DC Hayling Lab held 7.0 over Con 19.8
20 June 2002
Amber Valley DCBelper CentralCon held 7.6 over Lab 27.0
Bridgnorth DCSherrifhales Con gain from Ind20.8 over Ind 15.0
Camden LBCCamden Town Lab gain from LD 2.6 over LD 27.8
With Primrose Hill
Doncaster MBCStainforth Lab held 35.2 over LD 17.0
Shropshire CC Shifnal Con gain from Ind 28.8 over Ind 27.0
Walsall MBCAldridge Central SouthCon held 19.2 over Ind 26.7
Watford DC Oxhey LD held 55.1 over Con 28.0
27 June 2002
Aylesbury Vale DC MeadowcroftLD held 21.6 over Con 21.0
East Lindsey DC Tetney Con gain from Ind23.9 over Ind 21.0
Monmouthshire CCGoetre FawrLD gain from Con0.9 over Con 50.2
North Tyneside MBCSeatonville Con held 35.5 over LD 33.5
North Tyneside MBC St. Marys Con held 74.5 over Lab 38.4
Nottinghamshire CC Chilwell Con gain from Lab10.1 over Lab35.8
Purbeck DC St. Martin LD gain from Ind13.7 over Con 50.9
Redcar & Cleveland BCSt. GermainsLD held 0.7 over Ind 48.1
Shepway DC Folkestone Park LD held 20.3 over Con 36.1
St Albans DC Verulam LD gain from Con1.2 over Con 40.9
Tower Hamlets LBCBlackwall & Cubitt TownLAB held0.5 over Con 23.4
Wealden DC Uckfield LD gain from Con 10.2 over Con 22.9
Summary of results
Gains Held Lost Net
Conservative 4 4 3 +1
Labour 2 6 1 +1
Liberal Democrat 4 5 1 +3
Independent - - 5 -5