I am trying to remember the last by-election in which the character and views of the candidate for the challenging party made a significant difference to the result. It doesn’t seem to have done so in any of the 17 by-elections that have already taken place during this Parliament, save for one – George Galloway’s victory in Bradford.
Chloe Smith and Edward Timpson did well to wrest Norwich North and Crewe & Nantwich respectively from Labour during the last Parliament, but both by-elections were essentially wins for the Conservatives rather than their candidates. The Liberal Democrats have sometimes gone for local candidates in by-elections but, similarly, their gains have tended to be victories for party rather than candidate – especially in the days of the protest vote-gaining Rennard machine.
I am wondering if one has to go all the way back to Roy Jenkins’s win in Glasgow Hillhead, back in 1982, to find a pre-Galloway example (the Respect MP was the Labour candidate who turfed Jenkins out of Hillhead five years later, by the way). But whether this is so or not, the search gives rise to a question: will Roger Helmer – and his views on rape and homosexuality and the Catholic Church and so on – really matter much one way or the other in Newark?
If UKIP loses narrowly, I suspect that its candidate and those views will be blamed. But I doubt this would be fair. If UKIP comes first or second, it will be because the party has taken over from the Liberal Democrats the by-election function of being the party of protest. (Its performance in May 2015 will be a much better test of its general appeal to voters.)
Helmer makes marvellous copy for the media. But it would be against by-election form were he himself to determine the result in Newark.