There can be little doubt the electorate gives proper attention to by-elections when the British National Party has a real chance of winning. Politicians breathed a sigh of relief when the Liberal Democrats won Burnley's Hapton with Park ward, defeating the BNP by just 11 votes - a victory that took official opposition status from the BNP.
Yet if the main parties believe this result arrests the BNP's momentum, they need to think again. At 54% the turnout was considerably above the average and 16% higher than on 1 May. This indicates the local parties successfully mobilised the electors. That, of course, includes the BNP.
But this level of electoral engagement continues to be the exception rather than the rule. In more than half this month's by-elections, fewer than three in 10 voted.
The chart shows the average by-election shares for the month of June from 1983 to the present. This is a month that traditionally has some of the highest recorded turnouts, we suspect because of the longer daylight hours. Though last month's turnout is better than in some recent years, the overall trend is apparent. Turnout has declined quite markedly since Labour was elected to power. Ignoring the figure for 2001, when many by-elections were fought alongside the general election, we have to go back to the mid-1990s when more than a third of electors were mobilised into voting at a by-election.
Downing Street's spat with the BBC is certainly not the type of issue to trigge r a return to the polling stations.Of course, it is not only the government at daggers drawn with the BBC. Following its coverage of the May elections, the Conservative party complained insufficient weight had been given to its own electoral performance. Indeed, the Conservatives made impressive gains but its national equivalent vote share, around 35%, was far below that needed to dislodge Labour at the next general election.
However, the party does appear to be benefiting from Labour's discomfort. In the North ward of Welwyn Hatfield BC the Conservatives won quite easily. In 2002 the ward had returned Labour with an 8% majority but in 2001, two seats were shared between the main parties.
The result in the Hatfield South division of Hertfordshire CC is rather more illuminating. The division was last fought on the day of the 2001 general election when Labour won with an 8% majority over the second-placed Conservatives. The by-election result that reversed those placings arrived courtesy of a 10% swing from Labour since 2001. To secure their place in history, Iain Duncan Smith and the Tory party require a 10.5% swing at the next general election to replace Labour as the party of national government. Such a swing is larger than the post-war record set by Tony Blair in 1997.
Recent opinion polls have been encouraging for the Conservatives. The polls show Labour's lead has been either pegged back or - as in the case of YouGov for the Daily Telegraph - showing the Conservatives ahead for the first time since the row over fuel tax in September 2000. But the party needs both of the indicators, by-election and the polls, to move further in their favour before they can begin to convince the electorate that the party is a credible alternative to Labour.
Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher
Directors, LGC Election Centre, University of Plymouth
Council Ward Result Majority Turnout %
12 June 2003
Castle Morpeth DCLynemouthInd gain from ind Lab 39.5 over Lab44.0
Rother DCRother Levels 2 Con win 13.7 over LD34.5
19 June 2003
Allerdale DCSolway Con gain from Lab 39.1 over Ind36.3
Barnet LBCBurnt Oak Lab held 61.9 over Con23.2
Burnley DCHapton With ParkLD gain from Lab0.5 over BNP53.5
Dartford DCLongfield New Barn & Southfleet3 Con win26.7 over Ind45.6
East Riding of Yorkshire CouncilHessle3 LD win51.5 over Con26.5
Eden DCKirkby Stephen LD held 30.7 over Con32.8
Hastings DCConquest Con held 15.8 over LD34.5
Kings Lynn & West DCRudham Con win 25.3 over Lab50.0
Sevenoaks DCEdenbridge South & West1 Lab win; 1 Con win1.0 over Con25.3
Walsall MBCBloxwich East Lab held 0.5 over Con21.7
Welwyn Hatfield DCHatfield NorthCon gain from Lab13.3 over Lab24.7
Hertfordshire CCHatfield SouthCon gain from Lab12.3 over Lab25.2
West Lindsey DCMarket Rasen LD held 12.5 over Con28.7
26 June 2003
Daventry DCDrayton Con gain from Lab7.6 over Lab12.8
Eden DC Ullswater Con gain from LD 27.7 over LD30.4
Islington LBCBarnsbury LD held 40.1 over Lab20.7
Islington LBCHillrise LD held 9.4 over Lab26.1
Note: In wards affected by boundary changes the result is shown as 'win'.