Tomorrow, voters in the constituencies of Clacton and Heywood & Middleton will go to the polls, and there has been a lot of speculation, mainly as to how much Douglas Carswell will win Clacton by under his new colours and how much UKIP will be able to stall Labour's recovery in Heywood & Middleton.
Over the last few decades, there have been many, many parliamentary by-elections in the UK, featuring all sorts of candidates in addition to the mainstream candidates of Labour, Liberal/SDP/Lib Dem, and Conservative. There have been many cases of swings which are almost always unachievable in general elections anywhere. And there have been quite a few close finishes in British by-elections, and British general elections, where candidates missed out by a few hundred votes.
Here are some of my favourite close runs from British electoral history-people who never quite made it to the House of Commons:
Roger Pincham: Once Liberal Party treasurer, Roger contested Leominster five times for the Liberals but never won it despite his efforts-he was only 579 votes short of winning this seat in October 1974. Boundary changes to Leominster in 1983, which increased its electorate and bolstered the Conservative vote share, essentially put an end to his hopes of becoming a Liberal MP.
Claire Brooks: Another serial Liberal candidate who did not quite make it-she contested Skipton quite a few times, falling only 590 votes short in October 1974. Like Roger, Claire was stymied on her last attempt there by boundary changes strongly favouring the Conservatives-the fact that Ripon had been won by the Liberals briefly proved irrelevant. She did prove successful locally, once becoming Mayor of Skipton.
Christopher Walmsley: Contested West Derbyshire twice for the Liberals-he only missed winning this seat in the 1986 by-election by 100 votes, almost the closest on record (and the closest for a seat held by the incumbent party rather than gained by an opponent)
Andrew Date: Even in the landslide of 1997, there proved many Conservative seats that proved out of reach for non-Conservative challengers- but Andrew came within just 132 votes of becoming the first Labour MP to represent South West Bedfordshire (which includes Dunstable & Leighton Buzzard) in 27 years (the old seat of South Bedfordshire is largely coterminous to this seat)
Eddie Lopez: By all rights, he should have become the Labour MP for Slough in 1992. The only reason he did not was because a Mr. Declan Alford confused Labour voters by using the description 'the Labour candidate' (as opposed to 'Labour Party candidate') on the ballot paper. The Conservative majority that year was lower than the votes polled by Mr. Alford.
Stuart Mole: One of the best campaigners for the Liberals in the 1970s, in just nine years he pushed the Liberal vote in Chelmsford, not previously known for its Liberal tradition, from 9% to 41%. It was in the 1983 general election that he really captured attention-he missed out on unseating long-serving Conservative MP for Chelmsford, Norman St. John-Stevas, by just 378 votes. Surprisingly, he fell back when Norman retired-perhaps there were just no more Labour voting clusters to squeeze.
Alan Watson: Stood for Richmond, then Richmond & Barnes, four times for the Liberals, coming only 74 votes short in 1983. Had he stood in 1992, he might have unseated Jeremy Hanley in the same way Paul Tyler unseated Gerry Neale in North Cornwall that year.
Brian Seymour-Smith: Came only 582 votes short of winning Meriden in the 1997 general election. If he had been able to get a swing of just 1% greater, he would have been Meriden's first Labour MP in many years (the reason why Meriden is safely Conservative today is because its pre-1983 boundaries included the area now in the North Warwickshire seat).
Roger Roberts: He came rather close for the Liberal Democrats in Conwy in 1992 and 1997, falling less than 5% short of winning each time.
Ian McMinn: He came just 238 votes short of winning Hexham in 1997. Had he won it, the entire North East region would have ended up with no Conservative MPs at all that time.
There are of course many more besides-notably, one of my fellow Greens in Suffolk, Mark Ereira-Guyer, almost won Bury St Edmunds (back when he was part of Labour) from the Conservatives back in 1997.
I also ponder some questions of my own about the Clacton by-election, and to a lesser extent Heywood and Middleton's by-election:
My five personal questions about the Clacton by-election:
-How much exactly will Douglas Carswell win Clacton by under UKIP?
-Will he beat Dick Taverne's record of 1973 by polling more than 58% of the vote from a standing start?
-Could there be a swing against the Conservatives large enough that Labour potentially beats them to second place by accident?
-Will the Green Party candidate, Chris Southall, come ahead of the Liberal Democrats (and possibly save his deposit) as I hope?
-How well, or badly, will the two independent candidates in Clacton, Bruce Sizer, and Charlotte Rose, poll?
My five personal questions about the Heywood & Middleton by-election:
-Will UKIP's rise stall Labour's recovery in terms of vote share (which is what happened in the South Shields by-election back in 2013) in Heywood & Middleton?
-Just how far might the Conservative vote fall?
-Will the Liberal Democrats defy poll ratings for this by-election and save their deposit?
-Will we Greens make a good first impression (in terms of results) here?
-Given the much higher publicity about Clacton, how much of a drop in turnout will occur in Heywood & Middleton
Please feel free to provide your own answers to the above questions, readers :)