Beware the old-fashioned protest vote

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Indy Politics

Thursday's by-elections will tell us a lot about whether Labour has managed to put its recent electoral difficulties behind it. Throughout this Parliament, Labour has had trouble converting its lead in the polls into votes at the ballot box. It even trailed the Tories both in last year's European elections and this year's local elections.

Thursday's by-elections will tell us a lot about whether Labour has managed to put its recent electoral difficulties behind it. Throughout this Parliament, Labour has had trouble converting its lead in the polls into votes at the ballot box. It even trailed the Tories both in last year's European elections and this year's local elections.

Nowhere has this been more true than in safe Labour seats, of which Preston, West Bromwich West and Glasgow Anniesland are all typical.

For example, in the five previous by-elections held in safe Labour seats since 1997, Labour's vote has fallen on average by no less than 18 points. Meanwhile turnout has plummeted by as much as 32 points. Similarly, in last year's European elections Labour's vote dropped by around 20 points in all three of the seats polling on Thursday, while turnout averaged a mere 17 per cent.

But in the past few months Labour's tune has changed. Last July's Budget statement saw spending increases for health and education. This month's pre-Budget statement gave a big increase to pensioners. Whereas in 1997 Labour was promising to spend no more than the Tories, now it is proudly claiming that it wants to spend (and thus tax) more.

So if core Labour voters were disenchanted because they could not see the difference between New Labour and Old Tory, they should now be feeling a lot happier with Mr Blair's administration. If so, Labour should do noticeably better on Thursday than it has done in previous by-elections in its safe seats.

But there are two clouds on the horizon. First, in the wake of the fuel crisis even Labour's standing in the polls has begun to look fragile. True, double-digit poll leads have started appearing again, but still only 29 per cent are satisfied with the Government's performance. Voters might still be in the mood for an old fashioned by-election protest.

Second, Labour has to worry about Scots' greater reluctance to back the party in Scottish parliament elections than in Westminster ones, preferring instead the SNP. For in Glasgow Anniesland voters will be voting for a new MSP to send to Edinburgh as well as a new MP to represent them in London. If some of them decide to split their ballots, then the MSP contest in Anniesland at least could be closer than Labour would like.

John Curtice is deputy director, ESRC Centre for Research into Elections and Social Trends

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