In the end, the parliamentary arithmetic has not changed. In the first-ever by-election propelled by the recall of an MP under the eponymous act passed in 2015, Labour narrowly managed to cling to the constituency gained from the Conservatives in 2017 and to fend off the challenge of the Brexit Party. Should we, then, just forget about the vote in Peterborough and move on? Certainly not, especially when considering the by-election in conjunction with the recently held European elections, write Andrea Pareschi and Gianfranco Baldini.

Experts have grouped by-elections – together with local elections and European elections – under the heading of “second-order” contests. As the common underlying rationale goes, for the voters there is simply less at stake, since the life and death of a government meant to wield executive power are not involved. Key ensuing consequences include low turnout, solid showings of minor parties and punishment delivered to the incumbent government (unless it is still undergoing “honeymoon” phase). More specifically, by-elections have been described as “barometer elections”, whose results are decisively swayed by the national electoral cycle, government popularity and economic prospects. A by-election offers the involved voters an easy opportunity to send a signal – all the more visible as the constituency temporarily garners unrivalled media attention – and to express a “cost-free” protest, as quite rarely does a single seat impact upon the government/opposition arithmetic.

By-elections seldom affect the results of contests taking place in the same constituencies at the following general elections. However, as Ivor Crewe perceptively added, they may bear on such important factors as the timing of a general election, the position of a party leader, party policies and the fortunes of minor parties. To be sure, the relevance of each by-election is contextual. For instance, the upset of 1 December 2016 in the pro-Remain constituency of Richmond Park – in which the Conservative-turned-independent incumbent was defeated by a Lib-Dem candidate strongly campaigning on Brexit – ultimately made no major difference, before being “reabsorbed” in the 2017 snap election. After twenty years, Crewe’s conclusion still holds true: “[i]n 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”.

That being said, several elements concurred to identify the struggle in the Peterborough constituency as a consequential one. Already a very marginal Conservative seat fifty years ago, then held by Labour in 1974-79 and more recently in 1997-2005, it endorsed the Conservatives’ Stewart Jackson until 2017, when Labour’s Fiona Onasanya “recaptured” it with a 607-vote majority (48 per cent) over the incumbent MP (47 per cent) on a 68 per cent turnout. In the Brexit referendum, however, Peterborough had backed Leave by 61 per cent on a turnout of 72 per cent; and in November 2018, according to Chris Hanretty’s estimates based on a Survation poll, it still favoured Leave by 55 per cent. In the European elections, the city of Peterborough – only partly encompassed by the Westminster constituency – went on to support the Brexit Party (38 per cent, 16,196 votes) well above Labour (17 per cent) and the Lib Dems (15 per cent), with the Conservatives and Greens trailing at about 11 per cent. These data chime with the estimates produced by Hanretty for the constituency itself. In sum, the label given to Peterborough by a minor candidate – “the mother of all marginals” – seemed emphatic but not out of place.

Apparently, even in the transition from a second-order election to another one, two weeks are a long time in politics. In the by-election – whose turnout (48 per cent) was sizably higher than in the European election (35 per cent) – Farage’s contender (29 per cent, 9,801 votes) was overtaken by the Labour candidate (31 per cent, 10,484 votes). The Conservatives, confined to the third position (21 per cent), lost two-thirds of their 2017 support and more than half of it in terms of percentage points, as compared to Labour’s one-half and five-eighths respectively. The Lib Dems improved past general election results, almost matching their European election percentage of support (12 per cent), which the Greens were not able to do (3 per cent). Data referring to recent elections in Peterborough is shown in Table 1 below.

* Data are estimates computed by Chris Hanretty as indicated above.

** % column totals may not actually add up to 100.0 due to rounding.

After much speculation on a prospective Brexit Party success, the second place obtained by Farage’s new political operation may look like defeat. Yet, one should be mindful of what UKIP accomplished from 2010 onwards, when Farage’s party embarked in a strategy exploiting by-elections to gradually build momentum. By 2013-2014 the party was able to score about 20 per cent in four diverse constituencies across England, paving the way for its triumph in the European elections of May 2014. This, in turn, helped it to claim its first two seats in late 2014 – via two Tory defectors – while almost snatching a third one from Labour.

UKIP’s rise was ultimately stopped by the first-past-the-post electoral system, which in 2015 delivered “single party government in a fragmented system” and rewarded its almost 4 million voters (12.6 per cent) with a single seat. The agency of the party, however, had been crucial in relation to its “blackmail potential” – its pressure on the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party – which played a key role in the sequence of events leading to the Brexit referendum.

Fast forward to 2019, and the Brexit Party has not just enhanced Farage’s previous European election result: it has just managed to get in two months to a stage UKIP needed three years to reach. If Farage’s results of 2013-2014, in Crewe’s terms, represented “rocks”, it is true that Peterborough per se marks no “boulder” yet. Nevertheless, the waves it contributes to create may well ensure that the blackmail potential of Farage’s reboot makes the ancient influence of UKIP pale in comparison.

The Brexit uncertainties lying ahead should suggest to both Conservatives and Labour to take the Peterborough result seriously, especially after the European elections revealed widespread breakaways from the electoral coalitions that had supported them in 2017. Electoral preferences seem to be more consistently driven by Brexit identities than in the past, with the Brexit Party and the Lib Dems now emerging – beyond Peterborough itself – as the most voted parties among the “strong identifiers” within the two camps.

As John Curtice suggests, we might have even entered the era of four-party politics, at least considering the three recent opinion polls published in late May. According to them, the four main parties – now also comprising the two winners of the European elections – all fluctuate between 16 and 26 per cent, on a pattern not dissimilar to the one that emerged in the “Spanish deadlock” of the two elections of 2015-16. Somewhat alarmingly for the Tories, they are the only party among the four not to lead the race in any of those three polls, which testify to the relevance of Farage’s renewed challenge and to the volatility of the British electorate. For that matter, such aspects are all but confirmed by the three subsequent polls having surfaced since then.

A final note of caution is in order. Evidence from Peterborough, certainly, does not dispel the conclusion that circumstances look grim for Labour and grimmer for the Tories. Yet, their combined share of the vote (52 per cent) – much lower than in the general elections of 2015 (75 per cent) and 2017 (95 per cent) – noticeably exceeds the analogous estimate for the European election in Peterborough (32 per cent). To put it differently: bearing second-order dynamics in mind, the by-election vote – coming only two weeks after the European one – shows that it might just be too soon to call the two major parties off. And with a new Prime Minister to be soon selected, the Brexit path is riddled of twists and turns to come.

This post represents the views of the author and not the Brexit blog, nor the LSE. Image Copyright by Philip Jeffrey and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence.

Andrea Pareschi is a research fellow at the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies (Pisa), completing a PhD jointly awarded by the School together with the universities of Siena, Pisa and Florence. His research interests include British politics, UKIP, Brexit and its consequences, European politics, mass-elite opinion congruence, Euroscepticism and populism.

Gianfranco Baldini is Associate Professor of Politics at the Department of Political and Social Sciences, University of Bologna, and Adjunct Professor of Italian Politics at the Dickinson College Centre for European Studies in Bologna. His research interests include British politics, Populism, Political parties and representation, comparative European and Italian politics.

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