It won't have escaped many hardened news junkies or Net trawlers that there was a by-election yesterday. Headline: Labour won. But what does it mean? The really boring answer is: lots of things, for lots of people. It's not a simple election result to interpret by any means. But I'll have a go (in a historical context and framework, of course) for each major party:
1. First - Labour.
John Curtice said last night that the party should be 'quietly pleased' at Debbi Abraham's election (above, with Ed Milliband). Its share of the vote went up just over 42 per cent - a 10 per cent rise, which would take their national vote share to about 40 per cent. Last night they had 41 per cent in YouGov's latest tracker poll. So this is pretty much in line with how they're doing nationally - fairly well, but not spectacularly. At this stage in the 1979-83 Parliament they were well ahead of a Conservative government making deep and unpopular cuts to public services, and went on to lose the subsequent General Election in spectacular and epoch-making fashion. So a couple of glasses of red all round: no champagne.
2. Then the Lib Dems.
Some people thought there might be a Liberal Democrat meltdown, given they're polling in single figures with YouGov (and in the low teens with others, for instance the 'gold standard' pollster ICM). This didn't happen. The Lib Dems pretty much stayed at their May 2010 position in terms of share of the vote. Liberal Democrats are relieved. Their leader talked up the poll as a 'strong result', while Lib Dem Ministers consoled themselves this morning with the feeling 'well, things could have been a lot worse'. They are rather deluding themselves. Preliminary indications are that about two-thirds of Conservatives shifting their vote to other parties (see below) came to the Lib Dems. That's about 10 per cent of the vote overall. So the Lib Dem vote share of 32 per cent would probably read much closer to 22 per cent in a General Election, when Conservative-minded electors would probably stay with their 'favoured' party. The Lib Dems may well have come third in a First Past the Post race. All that said, if the third party can win its Alternative Vote referendum, things might look rosier for them - the greater number of Tory-leaning citizens seem minded to give any 'second preferences' to the Lib Dems, and the latter would have been in with a shout of winning the seat.
3. Lastly, the Conservatives.
It's even more of a mixed bag for the UK's (or, really, England's) biggest party. Their coalition allies didn't get marmalised: the Prime Minister's broader objectives, of making his party more 'liberal' and less 'nasty', is on track. But the Tory vote fell by more than half, and early indications are that it splintered to the United Kingdom Independence Party, and to Labour, as well as moving en masse to the Liberal Democrats. Baroness Warsi, the party's chair, has already been warning critics of the leadership to keep quiet. Troublemakers such as Tim Montgomerie of ConservativeHome are unlikely to oblige. Right-wingers in general are very unhappy about the coalition's relatively liberal direction on criminal justice, votes for prisoners, Europe and civil liberties. Basically throwing this seat to another political party, as the Prime Minister did when he wished the Lib Dems well (some Cabinet Ministers said more-or-less openly they wanted the Lib Dems to win) won't cheer them up. The right will become more assertive in the year to come.
Conclusions? Things look okay, but not startlingly good, for Labour; the Lib Dems desperately, desperately need a win in this year's AV referendum; Mr Cameron should watch his back lest his right-wing backbenchers try to plunge a knife in it. All in a day's politics.