Worrying for the Conservatives, a rebuff for the Lib Dems and good - but not spectacular - for Labour

Analysis

At some 15 per cent or so, turnout in the police elections was easily lower than in any previous nationwide election.

The Conservatives’ attempt to extend the country’s democracy proved to be a highly embarrassing flop.

Voters struggled to understand what the elections were about let alone what the candidates stood for.

The by-elections were affected too.

The 18  per cent turnout in Manchester Central was the lowest ever in a post-war by-election, beating the 19 per cent in Leeds Central in 1999 when a by-election coincided with a record low Euro-turnout.

There were plenty of excuses, including the November weather and the lack of a free candidate mailshot. But the more fundamental question is whether local policing can ever offer a big enough choice to attract the interest and attention of voters. Everyone, after all, is in favour of the police and against crime. 

Amongst the few that did care enough to vote, many  took the opportunity to reject introducing partisan politics into police affairs. Independent candidates won many a spectacular victory and between them on average won nearly 30 per cent of the vote.

Still,  Labour did have the satisfaction of capturing Corby with a 12.7 per cent swing, rather above the 9 per cent swing in the current national polls albeit not spectacularly so.

However, even leaving aside the travail caused by Independents, the swing from Tory to Labour in the police elections was typically rather below the 9 per cent swing in the polls.  Labour failed to win six of the eight contests it would have captured from the Tories on a 9 per  swing  and so ended up with fewer commissioners overall.

Indeed it will be UKIP’s rather than Labour’s performance that will worry Tory MPs most. The anti-European party won a record by-election share in Corby.  Over one in 10 voters backed UKIP where it stood in the police elections, hurting the Tories more than Labour in the process.

The pressure on David Cameron to commit himself to an” in or out” referendum on the European Union is only likely to increase.

So also is the despair amongst Liberal Democrats. Previous strength in Manchester and Cardiff melted away while on average the party’s 2010 vote was more than halved in the police elections. Nick Clegg’s apology about tuition fees was clearly not enough.

John Curtice is Professor of Politics, Strathclyde University

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