Saturday 5 March 2011

So how many horses in the Leicester South race then, LibDems?

This is certainly a cruel moment to be a Liberal Democrat.

Those whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first drive mad. So here comes a by-election in the constituency where the Liberal Democrats made their last Commons by-election gain in an English constituency, Leicester South, where the LibDems won the seat in 2004 before it returned to Labour in the 2005 General Election. Current MP Peter Soulsby will stand down to campaign to be Mayor of Leicester. (As David Herdson noted on Political Betting, it is usually overlooked that the LibDems have not won a Westminster by-election anywhere for almost five years, since Willie Rennie won Dunfermline East, meaning that this now seems almost certain to become their longest barren by-election spell since the 1950s).

How the Liberal Democrats used to anticipate such a by-election.

Could Nick Clegg now have wanted anything less?

LibDem by-election strategy could hardly be clearer in such a case.

Though the current national poll shift since May suggest the Tories should start off ahead of the LibDems by about two to one (perhaps 21.5% to 12%) in second, the "It's a two horse race" leaflets would already be at the printers, as soon as somebody has worked out on the maximum distortion possible between the LibDem 26.9% in second and the Tory 21.4% in third in the May 2010 General Election contest in the constituency:

Labour 21,479 45.6%
Liberal Democrat 12,671 26.9%
Conservative 10,066 21.4%
BNP 1,418 3.0%
Green 770 1.6%
UKIP 720 1.5%

But isn't it a little bit more complicated if you've just declared a two-horse race before finishing sixth in it?

Just for once, the real bar chart generated by Left Foot Forward trumped the campaign Focus versions for silliness.

The infamous bar charts could be dealt a death blow were the Yes side to win the May 5th referendum on the Alternative Vote.

What would be a real political earthquake is if the Liberal Democrats felt they had to retire them beforehand - while preparing a new edition of the Lord Razzall Turf Guide - so as not to offer any encouragement to cruel suggestions that the party could risk becoming a laughing stock. There may be legal considerations too. Any Liberal Democrat leaflets declaring that other parties "can't win here" could well lead to an unfair competition lawsuit from the National Union of Satirists.

So it would be entertaining for enterprising bookmakers to offer a range of LibDem specific bets, particularly odds on second, third (probably a strong favourite at the start), fourth and worse, but also perhaps specific two-party 'Liberal Democrats versus all-comers' match-ups right across the field of candidates.

The Greens were missed in Barnsley, where they did not stand, thus boosting LibDem chances of avoiding seventh place. Perhaps the Greens might reconsider their cautious and frugal by-election policy and think of standing in more by-elections in future, given the fair chance of beating a party of government.

But this looks a tricky race too for David Cameron. Taking a dive in Oldham East and Saddleworth, while denying doing so, proved a successful strategy in propping up the LibDem vote in that by-election. But it has made it very difficult to do it again. There are now plenty of Tory MPs and activists who do not keep to themselves their irritation, even talking to political opponents, that the Prime Minister has gone out of his way to mislead his own party on one or two occasions too many. And it might be as well to find out whether the Tory party can hold its own vote up somewhere.

Nick Clegg's main consolation may be that scrutiny of the result will probably be overshadowed by the much broader night of yellow horror which is anticipated on May 5th, assuming that the by-election is scheduled to be held simultaneously.

And, in what will clearly be a closer contest, Labour must find a candidate who follows Dan Jarvis in Barnsley in straining every sinew in refusing for a second to suggest that they have even thought about believing that the by-election is already in the bag.

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