10 February, 2006

Swing time

This is the kind of news it's great to wake up to: sudden, exciting, revelatory.

I think it's had such an impact because of the way by-elections haven't been such potentially devastating events under Labour as they were under the Tories - especially the last Conservative Government of 1992-97, where cumulative by-election defeats achieved the magical mathematical coup of wiping out John Major's entire majority. Since then the number of these parliamentary sideshows has gone down, as has the number of upsets, and hence the once common association between by-elections and potent political earthquakes has dimmed.

Last night's result has confirmed my belief that we're now into the most dramatic twelve months for British politics in a hell of a long time. So many things can be read into the Liberal Democrat victory. It was a constituency that, a generation or so ago, was held by a Communist. It was Gordon Brown's first practice run at being Prime Minister. It was an outcome genuinely unexpected by every single candidate. It was a result that saw the Tory Party's share of the vote fall, and their number of votes almost half from 4,400 to 2,700, despite David Cameron's love-in as leader. And it was a success for a party that, up to a matter of days ago, was being all but written off as a broken, bankrupt folly.

All of the above confound the majority of ostensibly sensible and measured political commentaries penned since Christmas. And just like the twin defeats over the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, nobody saw any of it coming.

So far this year there seems to have been at least one unforeseen political rupture, shock or turnaround every single week. Only those without a soul could fail to be moved by the excitement of a country in such a democratic flux. These are heady times. We should treasure them.


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