The expected result was that Labour would win back the Westminster seat of Blaenau Gwent, but that the widow of the former MP would hold the Assembly seat, but that proved far from the mark as placed by opinion polls. Although the Independent/Labour gap was closed significantly on the 2005 result, there was still a solid majority of 2500. This was despite a forceful campaign from the Labour party aimed at winning back what should be a rock-solidly safe seat - even Dennis Skinner was prevailed upon to sign an email sent to the party faithful across the country begging for help and Peter Hain had to apologise for the political error that caused the schism in the first place. Not a good result in our heartland and unquestionably yet another clear signal that the current Labour course is set for the rocks of opposition - unless the crew can persuade the skipper to change the heading.
And similarly, there are problems in the sunny Tory safe seats like Bromley and Chislehurst - target number 324 on the Liberal Democrat list and the 17th safest seat in Torydom. Until yesterday, when a 13,000 Conservative majority was slashed to just 633 in a less than resounding vote of confidence in the Brave New World of Cameron.
However, these are just by-elections and they are peculiar beasts at the best of times. Before the Lib Dems get too happy about their performance, you need to remember one key fact about the LD vote - it tends to hold up well. Both Labour and Conservative are vulnerable to their electors staying at home, particularly in by-elections - turnout was down to 50% in Wales and 40% in Bromley from 66% and 65% respectively last year. I have said this before, but the Lib Dems like low turnout - their vote will survive it. If you look at the results in both seats, you'll see that while both Labour and the Independent candidate both lose out in votes cast in Blaenau - 1325 and 7962 respectively), the Liberal Democrat vote slides by just 4. Similarly in Bromley, the Tory vote slides by just over half - down almost 12,000 votes - and Labour haemorrhages 8316 votes, but the Lib Dem vote holds up and actually gains 1620. As Kerron Cross points out though, for all the Liberal Democrat crowing about a stupendous result, that means that 20,000 mainstream votes went begging yesterday, but the Liberal Democrats only picked up 1620 of them. That is a lot less to do with Ming's inspiring leadership and more to do with the peculiarity of by-elections and the effectiveness of Chris Rennard's operation. A stronger leader would only enhance that, so let's hope Ming stays at the top for a while yet.
By-elections are strange things - local issues play a huge part in the outcome, as does the fact that the party can devote huge resource to just one constituency, something that always works in the favour of the Liberal Democrats, who have the best by-election winning machine in the business. Unfortunately, this seems to be devoted to flinging mud at the opposition, as Bob Neill (MP for the time being) said - to a background of LD jeers:
A minority of candidates, principally the Liberal Democrats, have chosen to fight this campaign with the most vigorous and underhand example of cynical personal abuse that I have encountered in 30 years of politics. If you [the Lib Dems] sometimes wonder why it is that people in this country are turned off by politics, get a mirror and look at yourselves.I'm not allowed to agree with the Tories. I'm sure it says that somewhere in the Labour Party rulebook, but he's right - and not just about the fact that Liberal Democrats indulge in widespread personal abuse. Kerron has already made similar comments - views in accord with anybody who has to deal with the slippery Lib Dems.
The Times has a quick run down on the LD tactics. Firstly, they devise a message and then they hammer that home throughout the campaign. Bob Neill was tagged as a professional politician -'Three Jobs Bob' - and exposed as that most heinous of offenders - somebody who doesn't live locally. The fact that the LD candidate was a lobbyist, PR merchant and not really that much more local isn't relevant - the anti-Bob story was hammered home as voters reported receiving up to three leaflets some days from the LDs. All were cleverly designed to grab your attention for a few seconds and to push the message home. The message became the truth and that's all that matters if you're a Liberal Democrat. Some sensible points are also made by Iain Dale on the matter from a Tory point of view.
Tactical voting also comes into play - it certainly seems that in Bromley, there was a concerted anti-Tory vote as the Labour vote almost vanished as they slid down to fourth place, while the Labour electors who did turn out seem to have switched to the Liberal Democrats. I doubt that this was a concerted action between the Liberals and Labour, more a smart move on the part of Labour to try to derail the Cameron revival by holding back on the campaign in the constituency. I'd fully expect Bromley to pick up a much enhanced majority come the next general election - much as Birmingham Hodge Hill did after the bruising by-election in 2004.
I did note that one of the independent candidates in Bromley was a John Hemming who had been falsely accused of appearing in a porn film. Thankfully, it was a John Hemming-Clark and not our own resident Superstud MP. The mere thought of him in a porn film caused me to revisit my breakfast. Still, at least he lost his bet with Guido.
Top marks go to the local blogger in Bromley who spotted the Liberal Democrats latest dodgy leaflet - their candidate is shown vigorously wiping away some graffiti conveniently close to campaign HQ, but a later photo shows the graffiti still in place. Not really a surprise as you can't shift that stuff easily - it usually takes some nasty chemicals and/or a high-pressure jet to blast it off. We won't go into Ben's 'experience' working in a Madras orphanage - which appears to amount to enough time to grab a quick photo, rather than any meaningful attempt to deal with grinding poverty. More interestingly for students of arcane elements of electoral law, it seems that Bob Neill, the victorious candidate in Bromley, may face a challenge over his eligibility, if any party fancies (or can afford) an electoral petition. Should a rerun be caused by this oversight, it is possible that the Tories could end up liable for the costs.
The Lib Dems did well and battered the Tories, but this was only a by-election. Don't read too much into it for either party - although neither was a good result for Labour.