Most disliked government of the century

Peter Kellner analyses the way that former Conservative voters are no l onger afraid to switch their votes directly to Tony Blair's Labour Party
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The Independent Online
Ian Pearson's victory in Dudley West takes British politics into uncharted territory. The scale of the Tory defeat confirms the message of recent opinion polls, the council elections in May and the European Parliament elections in June: Britain n ow has its most unpopular government this century.

Conservative support in Dudley collapsed from 49 to 19 per cent. Thirty-point falls in Tory seats were unprecedented before this Parliament, except in freak elections. (In 1935 the Tory vote in Liverpool Wavertree dropped by 47 points when an independentConservative intervened and won one quarter of the total vote.) In this parliament, however, big falls have become routine. Tory support dropped by 29 points in Newbury, by 32 points in Christchurch and by 27 points in Eastleigh.

But those three seats were all captured by the Liberal Democrats. What is different about Dudley West is that, for once, the Conservative vote collapsed to Labour. During the past three decades, Conservative support has fallen by 20 points or more in 12 seats that the party has defended. But before Dudley, this only happened where disgruntled Tory voters knew that they could protest safely without risking the election of a Labour MP.

Tory support never used to collapse so dramatically when Labour was the challenger. The record for modern times was set by Mid-Staffordshire almost five years ago, when Tory support fell by 18 points. Dudley West has beaten that and raises the alarming prospect for the Conservatives that their erstwhile supporters are no longer afraid of Labour. This fear-factor has played a significant part in keeping the Tories in power for 15 years.

Yesterday the Tories were disputing this analysis. They pointed to the low turnout at Dudley - just 47 per cent - and argued that most of their supporters simply stayed at home. Labour in fact polled 540 votes fewer than in 1992. So maybe the number of Tories that crossed to Labour was minimal.

It is impossible to prove the point either way. But all the circumstantial evidence suggests the Tories are wrong. For a start, the turnout was par for the course for the time of year. The record for highest turnout in a December by-election during the past 20 years stands at no more than 51 per cent.

Second, the Labour and Tory percentage shares were in line with three opinion polls conducted during the last 10 days of the campaign. The fact that a low turnout produced the same distribution of support suggests the decision to stay at home on a cold, dark winter evening had no political bias.

The evidence from NOP's poll for the Wolverhampton Express and Star suggests that, of those people who voted Tory in 1992 and who voted last Thursday, up to four out of ten - about 6,000 voters - chose Labour this time. All previous studies of electoral movement have found that most of the "swing" between Tory and Labour in elections is in fact the net effect of movements to and from the centre, and to and from abstention. Seldom, if ever, have this many people switched directly from Tory to Labour.

What the Tories cannot dispute is that the collapse in their vote - from 34,729 to 7,706 - is wholly without precedent. Of every 100 people who voted Conservative in 1992, only 22 supported the party on Thursday. The previous low record in a Tory seat was set last year in Christchurch - but there the party still managed to hold 35 of every 100 voters who had backed it previously. Labour, meanwhile, came within 600 votes in Dudley of achieving its biggest ever by-election majority.