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Small parties struggling to make waves

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The broad political landscape may not have changed since party activists gathered for the last conference season, but the mood music certainly has.

Our analysis of local by-elections since the last all-out polls in June shows that the Conservatives remain on course to win a general election, now delayed until the last possible moment because Labour did not manage to open a window of opportunity to go to the country earlier.

The Liberal Democrats continue to flatter to deceive with good performances locally, but remain rather stuck in the polls and came fourth behind the UK Independence Party at the European Parliament elections.

Whoever does win next year will soon find themselves unpopular as public spending cuts begin to impact on jobs and services, not least in local government.

Share of the vote

 Vote at council by-election since JuneChange (%)

But it was the Daily Telegraph’s drip feed of stories implicating Members of Parliament from all parties in increasingly bizarre allowances and expense claims that stirred public anger.  In elections of all kinds voters are now taking the opportunity to cock a snook at the Westminster political class by supporting one of the smaller parties. 

Parties other than the ‘big’ three’ polled more than four in ten of all votes cast at the Euro polls and both the Greens and UKIP posted record scores at the Norwich North parliamentary by-election in July.  On paper the swing from Labour to the Conservatives at that contest was a healthy looking 16.5%.  In practice, it was the haemorrhaging of Labour support that produced Chloe Smith’s victory with the Conservatives polling 2,000 fewer votes than in 2005.

Contrast that with the outcome in Crewe and Nantwich a year earlier when the Conservatives posted a swing of 17.5% from Labour, almost all of it the result of a straight movement between the two, and attracted more than 6,000 extra voters to their side. 

Local elections have not been immune to this trend, they also point up the limits of its impact in a first past the post electoral system.  In local by-elections since the expenses scandal broke the share of the vote for both Labour and the Conservatives has declined by about three percentage points compared with previous contests.  The Liberal Democrats are holding steady and the smaller parties are up by about 5%. 

However, most of the seats remained in the same hands or were exchanged between the major parties with the ‘others’ picking up just two net gains.

Summary of local by-election results since June 2009

Liberal Democrat6114+2

UKIP took a seat from each of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats at simultaneous contests in Huntingdonshire DC and Cambridgeshire CC in July, but the Conservatives wrested a seat from the British National Party at Broxtowe BC a week later. 

It was a similar story at the county elections back in June.  The combined vote for the Greens, UKIP and BNP, as well as a myriad of micro parties fighting on specifically local issues, was higher than that achieved by all the Labour candidates.  Yet they won only 103 of these seats compared to Labour’s 147. 

General election

It is likely that the general election will see a further increase in support for the so-called minor parties (their share has steadily risen from just 1.3% in 1992 to 5.8% in 2005), but seat gains will be rare and may require a similar combination of the circumstances that saw Dr Richard Taylor win Wyre Forest in 2001. A significant factor in paving the way for his victory had been the local election successes of the Kidderminster hospital campaigners in both 1999 and 2000.

Currently the Greens in Brighton Pavilion look best placed to exploit both the national mood and local strength to deliver a jolt to the Westminster comfort zone. 


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