John Curtice: Time is ripe for Kennedy to get party bandwagon rolling

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Twenty years ago the SDP/Liberal Alliance tried to "break the mould of British politics". They failed. But their successors, the Liberal Democrats, have now at least managed to break the mould of British by-elections.

Twenty years ago the SDP/Liberal Alliance tried to "break the mould of British politics". They failed. But their successors, the Liberal Democrats, have now at least managed to break the mould of British by-elections.

Before their unexpected and spectacular victory in Brent East last September, the party and its predecessors had managed to capture only five seats from Labour in more than 50 years of postwar by-elections. The party's roll call of famous by-election successes, such as Orpington, Christchurch and Eastbourne, was almost entirely a list of Conservative scalps. And, on the rare occasions when victory did come in a Labour seat, the result seemed to have more to do with unusual local circumstances than any apparent ability to profit from Labour's unpopularity nationally.

But now, in less than a year, the Liberal Democrats have captured two safe Labour seats and only narrowly missed a third. They have evidently secured a systematic ability to reach parts of the electorate almost entirely beyond their reach before. And they have left the Conservatives in a very sorry state.

Much as the Conservatives might say neither Birmingham Hodge Hill nor Leicester South are natural Conservative territory, the party has won both of them within living memory. In 1983, it secured Leicester South, albeit by just seven votes.

The Conservatives captured Hodge Hill's predecessor seat, Birmingham Stechford, in a 1977 by-election occasioned by the resignation of Roy Jenkins to become president of the European Commission. These victories were achieved in the most propitious of circumstances, so they do not necessarily suggest the Conservatives should have won either seat this time around.

But they do indicate there is no reason why the party should not have been giving Labour a run for its money. Instead, its share of the vote fell in both seats by three percentage points, a worse performance than in any by-election held since 1997 in a safe English Labour seat.

Still, Labour's smugness at Mr Howard's misfortune should be shortlived. For the scale of its own losses suggests it is suffering rather more than the usual dose of mid-term governmental blues from which all governments eventually recover. Labour's share of the vote has fallen by more than 25 points in three by-elections in a row. The last and only time that happened to a government in seats it was defending was in the period between 1992 and 1994 when, in the wake of Black Wednesday, the Conservatives suffered no less than four disastrous defeats in a row.

The last time a government's share of the vote fell on such a scale in two by-elections held on the same day was in November 1976, when Jim Callaghan's government was reeling from the IMF crisis. Both governments, of course, eventually crashed to defeat.

At present, a Labour victory still looks like the most probable outcome of the next general election. For it has one vital secret weapon: the electoral system. Given the way this has worked in the last two elections at least, Labour could win a majority with little more than a third of the vote and a point or two less than the Tories.

But the party's moral right to govern might well be challenged, while the electoral system from which it seemed to profit so much is brought into disrepute.

Yet the next few weeks and months present the Liberal Democrats with a major challenge too. The electorate appears to believe it has an unpopular government and an unattractive opposition. This ought to be the perfect setting for a Liberal Democrat revival, just as it proved to be in the early days of the SDP/Liberal Alliance.

But the Liberal Democrats are running at no more than 23 per cent in the opinion polls. The media attention that Thursday's victory in Leicester South will give them will create another chance to start a bandwagon. What remains to be seen is whether Charles Kennedy has the ability to make it roll across the country.

John Curtice is professor of politics, at Strathclyde University