A party can win a by election, and yet lose it too – if, for example, it holds its safest seat by a single vote.  This a reminder that the real order of winners and losers isn’t necessarily the same as that represented by the result.  So who did best and worst among the main parties contesting Newark on Thursday? I suggest as follows:

  • The Conservatives.  In terms of swing, the by-election was bad for the Tories, since their vote share fell by the best part of nine per cent.  But in terms of success, it wasn’t bad at all: after all, they won – rather an important consideration, surely.  Indeed, Newark was the first Conservative by-election victory in Government since William Hague hung on to Richmond in 1988, over 25 long years ago.  Furthermore, the Party defied Nigel Farage’s prediction of a narrow 2,500 majority to run out as winners by over 7000.  This is no mean achievement in an age in which the safe seats of governing parties topple in by-elections.  And while CCHQ won’t be able to replicate its concentrated Newark campaign next May, its campaigning machine is evidently in good shape – and in a better one than its rivals.
  • UKIP.  Nigel Farage’s strategic aim is to win at least one seat next May, and to keep building his Party up a major force.  To do so, UKIP needs to get well over the three per cent it won at the last general election.  It put 23 per cent or so on in Newark.  Its poll ratings have regularly been coming in this year at a lot more than ten per cent.  It is beginning to build a presence in local government.  That the party collapses next spring looks a lot less likely than it coming in at over five per cent.  If Farage’s real purpose is to take enough votes from the Tories to tip David Cameron out of Downing Street, and then screw concessions out of the demoralised Conservatives afterwards, then that dream is very much alive after last Thursday.  This is why I don’t agree with those commentators who claim that for UKIP in Newark it was win or bust.
  • Liberal Democrats.  Nick Clegg’s aim next spring is for his party to keep the seats it holds – a key factor in which is the popularity of its sitting MPs – and return in a position to be part of another coalition government.   Since Newark isn’t such a constituency and doesn’t have such an MP, coming sixth was irrelevant to that goal.
  • Labour.  The usual form in British politics is for the Government of the day to recover as the general election approaches.  Ed Miliband therefore needed to win Newark, and do so with a decent majority, to suggest that Labour is on course for a comfortable victory next May.  That his party came third casts a bleak light on its current performance.

As this site has pointed out many times, the Tory brand is weaker among voters than the Labour one.  But the Labour leader is weaker among them than the Conservative one – indeed, his ratings are, from his own party’s point of view, alarming.

One way of thinking about the next election as it approaches is that it will pit the strategic weakness in the Tory position (its boundary disadvantage; its loss of more supporters to UKIP than Labour is leaking; its vulnerability among ethnic minority voters, and Labour’s gain of fomer Liberal Democrats) against the personal weakness of Labour’s leader (and the strength of the recovery).

Another way of anticipating the contest is to wonder which weakness will win, or rather lose, out – the weakness of the Tory brand or the weakness of Ed Miliband.  The significance of Newark was its demonstration of just how extensive that latter weakness is.