Only the most obsessive of political anoraks among my readers will recall the Tory campaign in Stechford, the seat previously held by Roy Jenkins. The youthful candidate, Andrew MacKay (now MP for Bracknell), issued a leaflet calling for an end to immigration. In an interview with New Society (long since merged with the New Statesman) a few months later, MacKay urged the repeal of the Race Relations Act. Consider that these sentiments were uttered at a time of burgeoning support for racist parties. The National Front came third, with 8% of the vote, at Stechford, beating the Liberal candidate.
But now consider this. According to the Guardian's dissection, elsewhere in today's paper, of the miserable Labour campaign in Crewe:
The issue of race also reared its head, with Labour highlighting that Timpson and the Tories were against ID cards for foreign nationals. The Tory MP Eric Pickles, who masterminded Timpson's campaign, was furious that the issue had been raised in a town where, for the most part, locals rub along easily with workers from eastern Europe. "When the circus leaves you have to be careful what you leave behind," said Pickles. "The last thing you want is to stir up concerns about immigration."
I'm unfazed by most by-election ploys, on the grounds that an obviously desperate expedient will be obvious not only to me. But if The Guardian's account is accurate, then Labour's campaign was a peculiarly cynical one. This sort of theme needs to be retired immediately and explicitly from the party's campaigning.
Meanwhile, in The Times, Tim Hames notes the "amazing, spooky frankly, similarity between this by-election and one held at Mid-Staffordshire in 1990". Tim notes many points of similarity, to which I add one. When the Tories lost the Mid-Staffordshire by-election (yet went on to win the 1992 general election, under a new leader), their defeated candidate, Charles Prior, made one of the least gracious speeches of concession that I have heard.
Being the nephew of James Prior (former Employment Secretary under Mrs Thatcher), Charles Prior evidently assumed that a parliamentary career was his right. His bellowing anguish in defeat was painful to watch. It was even less eloquent than its only rival in British politics for wounded, blustering indignation, the "victory" speech by Doug Hoyle in Warrington in 1981. (Hoyle nearly lost a safe Labour seat to the inaugural campaign of the new Social Democratic Party, whose candidate was Roy Jenkins. Had Shirley Williams been the SDP candidate, it is highly likely she would have gained sufficient additional votes to win.)
I say "only" rival, but there is now a competitor, or at least an addition, in this pantheon of graceless losers. She is Tamsin Dunwoody, whose bereavement I sympathise on but whose political ineptitude symbolises the state of Labour under Gordon Brown.