Students of hindsight point to two events during the 1992-97 parliament that convinced them of John Major's eventual electoral fate. Britain's ignominious exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism in September 1992 was the moment they knew the government would find it impossible to recover. The shattering Conservative by-election defeat in Wirral South in February 1997 was proof that Labour would win the imminent general election by a landslide.
That a single by-election should be invested with such symbolic importance is symptomatic of the schizophrenic way such events are treated by politicians, journalists and academics alike. On the one hand it is often asserted that by-elections mean little, especially for the result of the next general election. They provide the opportunity for protest voting, for a media circus and for electoral records to be broken, but are essentially ephemeral events. That the Conservatives regained all the seats they had lost in by-elections since 1987 at the 1992 general election has become a standard of pub quizzes.
On the other hand, by-elections are claimed to provide important clues about the political state of the nation. They can influence changes of policy - as in the revolt against the poll tax in Mid-Staffordshire in 1990 and Ribble Valley in 1991; they offer unparalleled opportunities for the oxygen of publicity to boost third and other parties -as in the Alliance's by-election triumphs of 1981-82; and they can break parties and leaders. Humiliation at the hands of Lord Sutch and the Monster Raving Loony Party at the 1990 Bootle by-election prompted David Owen to wind up his rump post-merger SDP.
This book demonstrates that some truth attaches to each interpretation. As Ivor Crewe puts it in his chapter skilfully summing up the ebb and flow of by-elections since 1983: "In the river of British politics most by-elections are mere pebbles; but among them are rocks that capsize the canoeists and the occasional boulder that alters the course of the flow.'' Half the chapters are concerned with by-elections as defining political events. Contests that are claimed to have disturbed the water, to pursue Crewe's analogy, are examined in detail. They range from Newport in 1922 and its impact on the Lloyd George coalition, through the "appeasement" by-elections in Oxford and Bridgwater in 1938, to Roy Jenkins's election for the SDP in Glasgow Hillhead in 1982. These case studies, and the flavour they impart, are the book's strength.
Regrettably, however, there are no case studies on the period since 1982. Two-thirds of the book appears to be a reprint from the original 1974 edition and no new detailed constituency surveys have been commissioned. A casual reading of the dustjacket would suggest Bermondsey (1983), Christchurch (1993) and Wirral South (1997) receive as much attention as earlier contests. In fact, they rate scarcely a mention. The important by-election at Greenwich in 1987, which showed Labour was still not electable, is similarly passed over.
The remaining chapters consist of reviews of by-elections from 1918 to the present day. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on those during the second world war and David McKie's analysis of the Wilson governments of the 1960s when huge swings first became commonplace. These summaries, and the appendices detailing the results, provide a wealth of useful material. For political scientists, however, this book will complement, but not supersede, the more systematic, theoretical treatment offered by Pippa Norris's British By-elections (1990).
Colin Rallings is professor of politics and director, Local Government Chronicle Elections Centre, University of Plymouth.
By-Elections in British Politics
Author - Chris Cook and John Ramsden
Editor - Chris Cook and John Ramsden
ISBN - 1 85728 535 2
Publisher - UCL Press
Price - £14.95
Pages - 319