Thursday's by-election in the West London parliamentary district of Feltham and Heston to fill a safe seat left vacant by the death of its occupant would normally have been unremarkable. However, because this was the first electoral test in the UK after Cameron's rejection of changes to the EU treaty, interest was high in the run-up to the vote, at least among pundits if not the people.
The seat in this working class constituency near Heathrow has been traditionally Labour and they were expected to hold it. Thus speculation centered around the meaning of the margins: would the Tories’ post Brussels bump in popularity that puts them ahead of Labour for the first time this year have an impact in this contest? Could the Lib Dems manage a showing that suggested their death spiral is proceeding at something less than terminal velocity?
Further complicating the picture is the position of Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband. His own popularity ratings have fallen sharply from the highpoint he achieved with his strong stance on the phone hacking scandal; the past week has been a particularly difficult one for him with reports of party militants’ dissatisfaction with his leadership. So, normally a relatively safe Labour seat during an economic downturn under a Conservative government ought to mean a no-brainer win for the left. But much of the commentariat saw the potential for a slide if not loss for Labour by interpreting this as a referendum on Miliband’s performance.
Despite the overloaded expectations, Thursday’s election was in fact unremarkable. Labour, as expected, retained the seat and captured 54% of the vote; this was a swing away from the Tories of 8.6%. Certainly, this was a good way to end Miliband’s bad week – even a very narrow win would have increased the grumbling within the party – and this gives him some much needed breathing room. But it was hardly the ‘verdict on the government’s failed economic plan’ he claimed. For one thing, at just under 29%, the turnout was the lowest for a by-election in more than a decade and the swing away from the Tories in a by-election was the lowest since the coalition came to power. For another, victorious Seema Malhotra was an appealing local candidate who followed an unpopular predecessor, the deceased Alan Keen, who had been caught up in the Parliamentary expenses scandal.
For the Lib Dems, their result was face-saving only in the sense that they placed third. With 88 votes more, they avoided the ignominy of coming in behind Ukip, the right-wing, anti-Europe UK Independence Party. Still, the drop from 14% in the last election to just 6% for the Liberal Democrats may be a sign of their general unraveling.
So, Thursday will have brought a sigh of relief for Miliband and Clegg and maybe even Cameron but no clear indications of dramatic shifts for the Tories and Labour or that the particular issues dogging the parties are going away.