Irrelevant bellows amplified on videotape

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CHRISTCHURCH is a Conservative seat; sooner or later, it will be represented by a Tory MP again. Sooner, indeed, since it will be back in the fold after the next general election. Modern by-elections are media-magnified squeals of pain. General elections are aggregated calculations of self-interest. The two things are different in nature as well as in scale. The by-election is no more a small-scale version of a general election than a bellow is scaled-down opera.

And how they have grown, these bellows. Within living memory by-elections were barely covered by the national media, unless they happened to focus some critical issue, such as the 'appeasement' by-elections in Perthshire and Oxford in 1938. Later upsets, notably the Liberal victory at Orpington in 1962, began the 'breakthrough' prediction business, which is falling into disrepute. (Not fast enough, not deeply enough.)

Most by-elections were neither interesting nor did they result in a change of party. One senior Tory recalled recently how, when he first arrived in Parliament, backbenchers would regularly retire in mid-session, to be replaced by another of the same party with much the same majority.

The figures bear him out. By-elections used to be more frequent and, to coin an attractive word, hum-drummer. Attlee's 1945-50 administration rumbled on past 52 by-elections, with the party of government losing none. The Tory governments of 1951-59 did nearly as well: 100 by-elections and the net loss of a mere two seats.

The change came gradually during the Sixties and Seventies. The number of by-elections lost by the government rose (Macmillan-Home, seven losses; Wilson 1966-70, 17 losses). Knights of the shires and white-haired old miners could no longer quietly bow out in mid-term. The number of by-elections started to fall.

By the Thatcher era, the by-election revolt had become a firm part of the nation's political pantomime. Under John Major, no Tory seat is safe. Indeed, the increasing scale of by-election landslides against Tory candidates has become frankly hilarious - even the computers employed, ridiculously, to extrapolate national results, wheeze and judder at the absurdity of it all.

Which provokes the simple question: why? Perhaps the governments have become steadily worse (but did Macmillan deserve such an easy run?). Or is it the less deferential society? I think we can narrow that down a bit: let us blame the less deferential Vincent Hanna, aided by videotape.

Mr Hanna, once memorably described as an Ulster Buddha raised on fried breakfasts, invented the art of witty, mocking by-election films. It all started with the BBC's Newsnight programme, born in 1980 and the first example, I think, was the Warrington by-election of 1981, which Roy Jenkins didn't quite win for the SDP. Mr Hanna discovered that by-elections provided an irresistibly watchable opportunity to bait and mock politicians. He loomed at the back of press conferences, and was supported by a pack of newspaper journalists who knew a spot of fun when they saw it.

Mr Hanna and his producers were also lucky in that videotape had just become widely available. Much cheaper and easier to edit than film, it meant that the cameras could be running for hours and hours to catch the politicians' pratfalls. Long late nights of editing produced the kind of closely observed, wickedly funny films that would have taken months to make a decade earlier. But did it matter? Who watched Newsnight?

Plenty of television people did. The Hanna technique became a genre. Then, degraded by less meticulous, hurried reporters working for daily news, it became a cliche. Newspapers too woke up to the possibilities for satire and local colour inherent in even dull by-elections. The metropolitan media circus has now become fixated on these by-elections ('How else would one see darling Wales?'). Now, indeed, the best advice for local councils wondering how to get national coverage for their beach or restored town hall is: shoot your MP.

So by-elections are completely irrelevant, ersatz events? Not quite. It is wromantic but wrong to write them off entirely. For the time being, most MPs and media folk think they matter, so they do: their relevance is measured by their impact on politicians. We know that by-elections can persuade prime ministers to delay general elections or sack chancellors. They can also help panic backbenchers into sacking prime ministers. They reflect real voters' anger and provide a seemingly scientific excuse for political assassinations.

This one? Not this one, I think, though Mr Major's 'bastards' comments mean he cannot now put all the blame on to Tory rebels. It has been written off. MPs (and commentators) are now heading south, swapping banal British rain for exotic French rain. But the story does not end in Christchurch. Already, Tory MEPs are becoming seriously worried by the thought that next June's European Parliament elections should decide Mr Major's future. They fear that electors will therefore slaughter them, allowing Liberal Democrats to build up their southern challenge for the next general election.

Christchurch will be a dot on a graph, rather than a conclusive event. I suspect, though, that it may mark the high tide of the by-election circus. How many safer seats are there left to aim at? How many more candidates need to be humiliated before the game palls? Isn't the joke becoming predictable? If, on the other hand, the next by-election is somewhere lush and quaint, with good local beer, I might be persuaded to change my mind.