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Published on March 7th, 2011 | by Rosa S
Image © The result in Barnsley this week hasn't told us a lot about party popularity. By-elections are rarely an accurate reflection of broader public opinion, but this doesn't stop politicians trying to tell us they are. Or rather, that they are sometimes (when they do well) and not at others (when they do badly). The Lib Dem response to the last two by-elections epitomised this attitude. They came in at second place in Oldham East, which was deemed by Clegg a “strong result” that would have “confounded [their] critics”. We were all supposed to think that things weren't going so badly after all for the liberals, because their by election result apparently indicated they were still a serious contender for power. But last Friday Clegg probably wished he'd advised critics to ignore by-elections: because the they certainly weren't confounded by the Barnsley result. Instead, they were revelling in it. The government was apparently “humiliated” by the result, which saw the lib dems take sixth place, with UKIP deeming it evidence that they could become the third party of British politics. The thing is, this is all a bit conjectural. Just like the Lib dems doing surprisingly well in Oldham doesn't tell us that they're massively popular, them doing chronically badly in Barnsley doesn't tell us the party's dead either. There are lots of reasons that a by election is a “faulty barometer” for measuring true public opinion. Protest votes tend to be a lot higher in by-elections because voters know that their vote will only change their MP, not the government. So people might vote for an opposition party when they don't want to see a that party in government, but because they want to give the coalition a kick in the teeth. This is a rather more plausible explanation why UKIP did so well, in contrast to Nigel Farage‘s gleeful declaration that their performance is a “springboard” and “not a one-off result”. (I think he's going to be disappointed.) But it's also wrong to think that everything is against the government in by-elections. For example, in Barnsley the by-election was called because the Labour MP had left his position in disgrace: so Labour had lost a lot of trust in the area too. The reason we have a by-election is because of exceptional circumstances meaning an MP can't fufil their role anymore, and those circumstances are inevitably going to effect the result in a way that they wouldn't if the election was called as a part of a general. Certainly, it is fun to speculate about by-elections. Who doesn't like seeing Nick “pledge-breaker” Clegg have to pay back his party's deposit? Commentators and journalists absolutely adore by-elections: they're like little tantalising treats between the generals to keep us interested. But the problem is a by-election result just doesn't tell us much about broader public opinion. In 1991, the Conservatives lost seven by-elections, but the next year they went on to win the general, securing a majority in parliament for another 5 years. It might comfort Nick Clegg to remember that. And I'd advise Farage and Miliband not to forget it either.

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Death of the Lib Dems or a backlash against the coalition: what the Barnsley result doesn’t say about politics

The result in Barnsley this week hasn’t told us a lot about party popularity. By-elections are rarely an accurate reflection of broader public opinion, but this doesn’t stop politicians trying to tell us they are. Or rather, that they are sometimes (when they do well) and not at others (when they do badly).

The Lib Dem response to the last two by-elections epitomised this attitude. They came in at second place in Oldham East, which was deemed by Clegg a “strong result” that would have “confounded [their] critics”. We were all supposed to think that things weren’t going so badly after all for the liberals, because their by election result apparently indicated they were still a serious contender for power. But last Friday Clegg probably wished he’d advised critics to ignore by-elections: because the they certainly weren’t confounded by the Barnsley result. Instead, they were revelling in it. The government was apparently “humiliated” by the result, which saw the lib dems take sixth place, with UKIP deeming it evidence that they could become the third party of British politics.

The thing is, this is all a bit conjectural. Just like the Lib dems doing surprisingly well in Oldham doesn’t tell us that they’re massively popular, them doing chronically badly in Barnsley doesn’t tell us the party’s dead either.

There are lots of reasons that a by election is a “faulty barometer” for measuring true public opinion. Protest votes tend to be a lot higher in by-elections because voters know that their vote will only change their MP, not the government. So people might vote for an opposition party when they don’t want to see a that party in government, but because they want to give the coalition a kick in the teeth. This is a rather more plausible explanation why UKIP did so well, in contrast to Nigel Farage‘s gleeful declaration that their performance is a “springboard” and “not a one-off result”. (I think he’s going to be disappointed.) But it’s also wrong to think that everything is against the government in by-elections. For example, in Barnsley the by-election was called because the Labour MP had left his position in disgrace: so Labour had lost a lot of trust in the area too. The reason we have a by-election is because of exceptional circumstances meaning an MP can’t fufil their role anymore, and those circumstances are inevitably going to effect the result in a way that they wouldn’t if the election was called as a part of a general.

Certainly, it is fun to speculate about by-elections. Who doesn’t like seeing Nick “pledge-breaker” Clegg have to pay back his party’s deposit? Commentators and journalists absolutely adore by-elections: they’re like little tantalising treats between the generals to keep us interested. But the problem is a by-election result just doesn’t tell us much about broader public opinion. In 1991, the Conservatives lost seven by-elections, but the next year they went on to win the general, securing a majority in parliament for another 5 years. It might comfort Nick Clegg to remember that. And I’d advise Farage and Miliband not to forget it either.

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