Westminster by-elections have long been a colourful part of the British political scene. They attract some temporary national media coverage to the political peculiarities of a particular constituency, which gets lavished with a degree of attention from the parties and media that it will rarely if ever experience again. By-elections also tend to witness some quite distinct voting patterns. Governing parties (at the UK level) often have a hard time in by-elections and – particularly in periods of unpopularity – have been known to lose seats on huge swings; the media sometimes then get very excited about projecting the consequences ‘if this swing were repeated across the country at a general election’. Such seats normally revert to type (or at least rather closer to it) at the next general election: in the 1992 general election, the Conservatives famously won back every single seat they had lost in by-elections during the 1987-1992 parliament.
By-elections to the National Assembly are something with which we have less experience. This Thursday’s by-election in Ynys Mon is the third to be held since the creation of the Assembly in 1999.
Both previous ones came in tragic circumstances. The first was held in September 2001, in Swansea East, after the death that July of the sitting Labour AM Val Feld. Even amidst the electoral ‘quiet earthquake’ of Plaid Cymru’s advance in 1999, Swansea East had remained a Labour seat with a fairly comfortable majority. The by-election occurred in the wake of Alun Michael’s de-fenestration as Labour leader in the Assembly, and also after the resignation of Dafydd Wigley as Plaid Cymru leader. The by-election saw Val Lloyd comfortably retain the seat for Labour: the voting figures (with changes in % vote share on 1999 in brackets) were:
Val Lloyd (Labour) 7,484, 58.1% (+12.5%)
John Ball (Plaid Cymru) 2,465, 19.2% (-8.3%)
Rob Speht (LibDem) 1,592, 12.4% (-6.6%)
Gerald Rowbottom (Cons.) 675, 5.2% (-2.8%)
In June 2006, another by-election occurred in equally tragic circumstances, after the death that April of Peter Law, AM and MP for Blaenau Gwent. Law had been elected as Labour AM to the constituency in 1999 and 2003. He famously fell out with the Labour party over the issue of an all-female shortlist being imposed by the party to choose the successor to Llew Smith as MP for Blaenau Gwent, and stood successfully for the seat in the 2005 general election as an Independent. After Law’s death, there were therefore two simultaneous by-elections held in June 2006. The Westminster seat was won by Law’s former agent Dai Davies. The Assembly by-election was fought by Law’s widow, Trish Law, who like Davies stood under the banner of Blaenau Gwent People’s Voice. In the event, she held the seat comfortably:
Trish Law (BGPV) 13,785, 50.3% (na)
John Hopkins (Labour) 9,321, 34.0 (-36.2%)
Steve Bard (LibDems) 2,054, 7.5% (-3.4%)
John Price (Plaid Cymru) 1,109, 4.0% (-5.6%)
Jonathan Burns (Cons.) 816, 3.0% (-2.7%)
John Matthews (Green) 302, 1.1% (na)
Happily, this week’s by-election comes in less grim circumstances: the previous AM, Ieuan Wyn Jones, is very much still with us.
Two previous examples is obviously a very slender basis on which to draw general conclusions about the nature of Assembly by-elections. But are there any lessons we can draw from previous examples?
First, it does seem clear that ‘stand-alone’ Assembly by-elections (i.e. like Swansea East and Ynys Mon, but unlike Blaenau Gwent) struggle to attract coverage from the London news media. They are rather lower-profile events, at least in terms of media attention. Whatever the result, we are not likely to witness an excited Peter Snow (actually, I think it is Jeremy Vine nowadays) leaping about showing the projected seat outcomes ‘if these swings were repeated across the country’. This may or may not be adjudged a good thing.
Second, while it would be unwise to expect by-election swings to be repeated exactly in the future, past experience suggests that the result in Ynys Mon may offer some harbingers of the political future. In retrospect, Val Lloyd’s 2001 victory showed Labour already re-asserting its dominance after the shocks of 1999, and Plaid Cymru’s challenge faltering. And the two Blaenau Gwent results were about more than just a sympathy vote: they demonstrated deeper problems in Labour’s heartlands, which were also seen in 2007. (An election from which, as I’ll argue in a later post, only the absence of a credible challenger to Labour saved the party from much deeper losses).
I’ll be back at the end of the week to consider what the potential implications of the Ynys Mon result might be.