Sleaford and North Hykeham – completely different yet largely the same

The standard media line about Sleaford and North Hykeham is that it is ‘as different as it is possible to get’ from Richmond Park, gained by the Liberal Democrats from the hapless Zac Goldsmith. So it is, yet, in so much as you can conclude anything, the results of both elections project largely the same messages.

Sleaford and North Hykeham doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue and nobody much who I’ve spoken to could tell me when it is. The snappily titled constituency sits between Lincoln, Grantham and Boston, is largely flat and contains none of the ten largest settlements in the County is the 59th least densely populated constituency in the UK. Its residents are disproportionately older and white British (96%) but although there are fewer than average students, qualifications are broadly in line with the national average. It has always been Conservative and voted ‘leave’ by a fair margin.

So no shock, Sleaford remains Conservative. Tory Party chiefs will be very happy indeed with a mere 2% decline in their vote at a December by-election caused by the resignation of one of their own with a low turnout 18 months into a Parliament. They even increased their majority slightly proportionate to the turnout.

Despite coming second this was a failure for UKIP. Their share of the vote fell from May 2015. While UKIP may have taken some votes from Labour and lost some to the Conservatives the numbers seem small to the point of insignificance. Twelve months ago it would have been reasonable to hang this round the neck of the deeply nasty Victoria Ayling – as unpleasant a Kipper as we’ve seen in at least a fortnight – but these days nasty seems to work. Either way, not exactly a storming start for Professor Nuttall in what was thought to be their territory.

The big winners, just as at Richmond, were the Liberal Democrats. Despite independents taking more than ten points from the pond in which the ‘third forces’ fish, the Liberal were still able to double their vote when nobody was talking about them as a serious challenger. Twelve months ago the Liberal Democrats were still being comprehensively trashed in situations like this. Sleaford confirms their move off life support.

The big losers, once again Labour who dropped from a distant second place to a lamentable fourth, losing 4 out of ten of their voters even allowing for the lower turnout. Being squeezed from second place is an indication of a party in trouble. The Labour candidate didn’t help. I would have been hard top take the clueless Jim Clarke seriously as a local council contender let alone as an MP, his embarrassing media performances made worse by a confused message. Labour has now been hammered in three successive by-elections. No opposition party has ever followed such mid-term performances into Government.

In the four by-elections before the referendum UKIP were going nowhere, in the three (excluding Batley) afterwards they have gone nowhere. In the 2016 local Government elections UKIP went nowhere, in local government by-elections the picture is mixed but there is little evidence of a surge. In the four elections before the referendum the Liberal Democrats showed no real signs of life, though there was movement in the graveyard at the local elections, since they have looked back in business and local by-elections confirm the trend. Before Labour successfully defended its four seats, since Labour has fallen back further in unpromising territory – a mixed picture ranging from catastrophe to modest success that the local government elections and by-elections confirm. For the Conservatives, there is no cause for alarm in any of the results.