Tory by-election defeat mirrors opinion polls

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The Independent Online

Political Correspondent

Thursday's by-election in Staffordshire South East was the second-worst Conservative defeat by Labour since the war - exceeded only by that in Dudley West during Tony Blair's "honeymoon" as the new Labour leader in December 1994.

Labour's Brian Jenkins, leader of the local council, crushed Tory Jimmy James by a margin of more than two-to-one, achieving a 22 per cent swing against the Government.

The improvement in Tory performance since the 29 per cent swing in Dudley West was seized on early yesterday by Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary of State for Health. But with Peter Snow's famous House of Commons graphic showing a theoretical majority for Mr Blair of 453, the Tory line of defence had shifted by midday.

John Major led a chorus of ministers drawing attention to a similar swing in March 1991: "I remember many people consigned the Government to oblivion after the Ribble Valley by-election where the swing was the same." He went on to win the largest ever vote in the general election a year later, he said.

What he omitted to mention was that Ribble Valley's 25 per cent swing was to the Liberal Democrats, who are capable of bigger upsets as a traditional centre party. Nor did he mention that Labour won Monmouth in May 1991 on a 12 per cent swing - a mere half the size of Thursday's landslide in Staffordshire.

What will frighten Tory MPs in marginal seats about Thursday's vote was that it suggested the opinion polls might actually present an accurate picture of the electorate's mood. With Labour currently an average of 29 points ahead.

SE Staffs: Full result

B Jenkins (Lab) 26,155(60%)

J James (C) 12,393(28%)

J Davy (Lib Dem) 2,042(5%)

A Smith (UK Ind) 1,272(3%)

Lord David Sutch (Official Monster Raving Loony Party) 506; Sharron Edwards (National Democrat, formerly National Front) 358, Steven Mountford (Liberal) 332, Leslie Tucker (Churchill Conservative) 123, News Bunny (The Official News Bunny Party) 85, Neville Samuelson (Daily Loonylugs Earing Up The World) 80, Frederick Sandy (Action Against Crime Life Means Life) 53, David Lucas (Natural Law Party) 53, Alan Wood (Democratic Restoration of the Death Penalty) 45.

Lab majority 13,762

Swing C to Lab: 22%

Turnout: 59.6%

1992 result: D Lightbown (C) 29,180; B Jenkins (Lab) 21,988; N Penlington (Lib Dem) 5,540. C maj: 7,192.