By-elections are usually fairly well hyped, by the parties as endorsements and by the media as indicative of trends. The two recent UK by-elections were largely unsurprising in their results but worthy of some comment.
The first point to make is that the votes in actual numbers for virtually all the parties fell, as did the turnout, as compared to the 2005 General Election. In percentage terms the Liberal Democrats could claim some comfort, but their votes did not increase substantially; thus the question is do they have around 4,000 loyal supporters that will always turn out and vote or did they gain a raft of new voters? The Conservatives similarly lost out, but not badly, but equally it is a question whether they have a hard core of voters that turnout come rain or shine or if Cameron, or Robb and Lit the candidates gained new supporters.
Labour seriously lost out. But is this a feature of vote switching or the low turnout? As both are deemed safe Labour seats there must be a sense of 'low self-efficacy' or powerlessness when voting. Equally why bother turning out to vote if the result is predictable. In Sedgefield there is also the non-Blair effect. Whether he is nationally hated or not, the media could always find people in Sedgefield that would speak positively about him; his successor could not offer the same prominence.
And there are worrying features. In Sedgefield the British National Party came a respectable fourth with 2,492 votes, 9% of the turnout.
But can these offer any indications in reality. The answer is probably not. If turnout increases for a General Election then normal service in these seats will probably resume. Safe seats will show some variations, but nothing that will effect the overall result. If we have a marginal by-election that may be a little more indicative, but still by-elections are a strange and unrepresentative beast that are given a lot of attention by parties and the media but fail to attract the interest of voters: such is the strange system we try to make sense of.