On the importance of by-elections (Bedford Mayor)

My initial response of Dave Hodgson’s fantastic win in Bedford today was this:

I have to say I’m surprised by the lack of media interest in this. Surely a Mayoral by-election is as newsworthy as a Parliamentary by-election?

To which ‘ollie’s’ response was:

Don’t be ridiculous.

As Nick Barlow went on to say, more people voted in the Bedford Mayoral by-election than in Norwich North earlier this year and indeed Bedford is larger than a parliamentary constituency. So even if we were just playing a numbers game, it affects more people. As Stephen Tall went on to say, elected mayors have actual executive power, something that Chloe Smith is unlikely to wield even after the next general election.

But it is also a test of the Tories’ so-called “open primary” selection process (that is to say, open caucus selection process, but who cares about small things such as terminological accuracy?) and according to some of the local Conservatives it appears to have been found wanting.

That is incredibly significant because with a significant number of candidates selected in this way, if the Tories have miscalculated it may dent their election prospects. We can’t of course read to much into it, but with the media “narrative” being that Cameron is unstoppable, at the very least it makes a significant footnote.

I also question this argument:

“Oh, as for Bedford- it’s a mayoral. Having worked on campaigns where we’ve been soundly beaten by a rogue cop, a monkey and a tory (Not unusual, except the previous Tory had been arrested for child abuse), and then won all the subsepquent parliamentary elections in those seats I’m pretty confident there isn’t much of a correlation between mayoral election and general election results.”

Hopi is right – mayoral elections are generally won by colourful independents. That why, on paper, the Tories’ decision to go for a more open candidate selection process was sound. The fact that this didn’t work – and that the two independents didn’t do better than they did – is significant. Lib Dems have not done terribly well in mayoral elections, outside of Watford anyway.

Lest I be accused of reading too much into this, I assure you that I’m not. A by-election is just a by-election and local factors are at least as significant if not more so as national factors. But perhaps I should have phrased it differently. The question is not really why mayoral by-elections don’t elicit as much interest as parliamentary by-elections but why parliamentary by-elections don’t elicit as little interest as mayoral ones? I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read over the past couple of years that the Lib Dems have lost their ability to win by-elections – ignoring the fact that we rarely do well where we aren’t in a clear second place and or are forced to fight a short campaign. Both bloggers and the commentariat have predicted a Lib Dem wipeout at the next election on this basis.

The reason the Lib Dems have historically invested as much as they have in by-elections is for precisely this reason: the media love to extract grand narratives out of tiny victories because it gives them something to write about. The grand victories are as bogus as the grand defeats, but we play the game because on balance it does us more good than harm. My message to those who argue that this mayoral by-election signifies very little is that you may be right, but don’t pretend that parliamentary by-elections somehow mean any more.

ADDENDUM: I should add that I remember campaigning in the first election for Bedford Mayor and what a thankless task it seemed. Just goes to show.


  1. I think the main lesson is that an open caucus risks deeply alienating the local party base, without engaging a new group of significant enough size to make up for it.

    The all-constituency ballots are looking very good, but even the tories can’t actually afford them. Presumably they were hoping for similar results from a nice cost-effective process. They hoped wrong.

  2. I agree with all you say, James. However, it’s also the case that the party (and wider membership) did not invest the same interest/effort in this by-election as would happen in a Parliamentary by-election. Partly this was the low campaign expenses limit – but I think it’s also the perception of mystique which surrounds Westminster elections, coupled with a general contempt for local politics as somehow meaningless.

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