I have always held that be-elections are peculiar beasts - each is unique with a particular rhythm and set of issues applicable only to that moment. Accordingly, drawing any massive conclusions from one election is no more relevant than relying on a single opinion poll to predict the next government. This has always been true and I believe always will remain true.
While Barnsley was a good result for Labour - we won, we need to remember that it is a safe seat for us, despite the criminal prosecution that saw Eric Illsley end up in jail. Prior to 2010, we would probably have seen a harder campaign from the Liberal Democrats, but reports from the ground suggest that their candidate, Dominic Carman, was largely on his own out on the streets, certainly towards the end of the short campaign. It was also the case that Illsley was a popular MP - a local man himself - and that people felt that he had been somewhat unlucky, that all politicians were 'at it' and that Illsley was just caught out. Labour also ran a candidate with a hugely strong personal narrative as a major in the Parachute Regiment who has seen active service - this trumps his poor local credentials and allowed him to become the first MP to represent Barnsley Central not born in Yorkshire and without strong links to the coal industry. In fact, since 1938, there's only been one other Barnsley Central MP not born in the town.
The results were interesting, though. Despite a low turnout - 20 points lower than May 2010 on just 37%, the drop in individual votes is interesting. While UKIP saw 171% of their voters appear to give them a poor second place and independent Tony Devoy more than doubled his vote, 85% of Labour's vote turned out to secure an easy win. Things are less bright when we look at the other parties, especially when you consider that 65% of the 2010 electorate turned out to vote last Thursday - the remaining parties underperformed significantly. The BNP vote held up the best, with 44% finding their way to the polling station to cast their vote in line with prejudice, but the Tories only saw 31% of their voters do their civic duty. The Liberal Democrat voters were pretty much the mirror image of Labour's - only 15% of them thought it worthwhile supporting their candidate, delivering the resounding smack in the face for Nick Clegg. Social media Lib Dems quickly took the line that Labour were celebrating a win which saw the BNP beat the Lib Dems, as if that was somehow the fault of the Labour Party rather than the result of a very poor Liberal Democrat campaign.
While this result does not bode well for the future of Liberal Democrat councillors and MPs, remembering the intense local complexities of these contests, the real test of the coalition does not lie in a random by-election - although I think that they will find it difficult to pull off their tried and tested oppositionalist schtick for the duration of their time in government. The first test will be in May this year, when councillors across the country have to face their electorates. I suspect that while this year will be rough for the Liberal Democrats, it will be 2012 when the real bloodbath will take place.
While it is not conclusive, this may prove an omen.