The on-going Brexit saga is enough to distract all but the most dedicated psephologist from the fact that there is a parliamentary by-election occurring tomorrow. After the sad death of Paul Flynn earlier in the year, the voters of Newport West will go to the polls (or, at least, have the opportunity to do so) on Thursday to elect his successor.
The Newport West seat has been held by Labour since Paul Flynn captured it from the Conservatives in the June 1987 general election. The result at the last election, in June 2017, was as follows:
In normal political times this by-election really should be a comfortable ‘hold’ for Labour. They have a decent majority from the general election. Moreover, the Conservatives were the only party anywhere close to them last time: unlike in some by-elections in the past, the Liberal Democrats don’t have a strong second place on which to build. Most relevant of all, we are in the mid-term period of an unpopular Conservative government at Westminster, with that government failing to deliver on its central policy objective. So Labour really ought to win.
If Labour do win, then Ruth Jones (a former President of the Wales TUC) will become the next MP. Their main apparent challengers, the Conservatives, also have a highly experienced candidate with a local profile: the former Mayor of Newport Matthew Evans. In total there are eleven candidates for the by-election. They include some ‘colourful’ figures, such as Neil Hamilton standing for UKIP; while among the others it is interesting that the Greens are represented by their Deputy Leader, and Newport native, Amelia Womack. The full list of candidates is as follows:
- Labour – Ruth Jones
- Conservatives – Matthew Evans
- Plaid Cymru – Jonathan T Clark
- UKIP – Neil Hamilton
- Liberal Democrats – Ryan Jones
- Green Party – Amelia Womack
- Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party – Richard Suchorzewski
- Renew – June Davies
- SDP – Ian McLean
- For Britain – Hugh Nicklin
- Democrats and Veterans – Phillip Taylor
The long list of ‘other’ candidates means that there will likely be multiple lost deposits. Less certain is what will be the impact of Brexit on the behaviour of voters. Newport West is a constituency that is estimated to have voted approximately 53.7% for Leave in June 2016. The former Welsh Government senior adviser Matt Greenough has recently suggested that voters in Newport West are likely to be more focussed on local issues, such as the M4 relief road and the impact of council cuts on local services. Speaking to others who have been out campaigning, there has been a similar message: voters want to talk about things other than Brexit. But this might reflect the general weariness with the issue that now encompasses just about the entire country. And even if people don’t wish to talk about Brexit, how they vote could be strongly influenced by it.
But even if people do vote based on Brexit, it is not self-evident who that would help. There might be some uplift in support for UKIP. But does the issue play particularly well for either the Conservatives or Labour? It is very easy to imagine pro-Leave voters being deeply dissatisfied with Theresa May’s government, and therefore unwilling to support the Conservatives; it is equally conceivable that large numbers of pro-Remain voters could be reluctant to endorse Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party. And Brexit is only the most prominent example of the broader phenomenon: that these are not ‘normal’ political times. The absence of an Independent Group/Change UK candidate robs us of an opportunity to gauge their electoral potential, but the broader problems facing the Labour party, including concerns over anti-semitism, could easily hurt their performance.
In general, by-elections tend to tell us somewhat less about the state of national politics than they often appear to do. The ‘message’ that appears to come from a particular locality can often be over-read. Yes, government parties tend to do poorly in by-elections, and unpopular governing parties often do particularly poorly. But the swings that we see in by-elections are rarely a precise guide to what will happen when a general election comes along.
Perhaps the most important outcome of the by-election, in the current political context, will simply be to provide one more vote in the House of Commons – a vote that can be cast in favour of some things and against others. We have just passed the fortieth anniversary of the No Confidence vote in parliament that James Callaghan’s government lost by a single vote. With similarly dramatic parliamentary votes are very possible in the weeks ahead, who the voters of Newport West end up choosing could really make a difference.