In the end, then, there were no surprises in the Feltham & Heston by-election. The main parties’ vote shares (Labour 54%, Conservative 28%) were well within the margin of error of those I found in my poll last week (Labour 52%, Conservative 30%).
However predictable its result, an election can always teach us something. As I said at the time of my poll, this has not been a very encouraging campaign for Labour. They won a comfortable majority, to nobody’s amazement, but their 8.6 per cent swing is not huge in historical terms, with an incumbent government facing difficult times and widespread economic pessimism. Even in this seat, voters were more likely to think of David Cameron than Ed Miliband as the best Prime Minister, trusted the Coalition rather than Labour on economic management, and preferred the Government’s approach to the deficit to that of the Opposition.
The result also reminds us that the things that obsess the political and media class do not necessarily make much of an impact on most people. Since last Thursday, nearly every column inch and broadcast minute of political coverage has been devoted to the Prime Minister’s veto of a new European treaty, and its ramifications. Though the veto was certainly an important moment in our relations with Europe, the voters of Feltham & Heston have delivered a raspberry to any suggestion that it would change very much for domestic voters. Most, when asked, might well say that they support the veto decision, and for many the episode will have reinforced their view of David Cameron as a strong leader. But when it comes to shifting real voting intention, even quite big political events matter less than people often suppose. I trust the Conservatives know better than to conclude from the past week that Europe as a theme should be pushed up the campaigning agenda.