Some by-elections go down in history as crucial turning points, such as Newport in 1922 which is credited with ending the Lloyd George coalition, or Orpington in 1962, regarded as a breakthrough in the Liberal recovery.
However, few by-elections can really be regarded as life or death events. But East Fulham in 1933 really did end up costing lives.
The outcome of the East Fulham by-election was that Labour (in serious disarray after the formation of the National Government) won a seat from the Conservatives.
What actually happened was that 4,840 more voters in a southwest London suburb on one day in October 1933 preferred a younger more dynamic Labour candidate to an older rather unpopular Conservative local landlord. Among the policies debated (which included much argument over housing) was the issue of rearmament – opposed by the Labour candidate and supported by the Conservative. Not surprisingly, in a part of London with no arms manufacturing or shipbuilding, but within reach of enemy bombers, the voters may have felt that they had little to gain from rearmament and possibly much to lose from a war.
Had the by-election taken place in a constituency with high unemployment and an arms factory, the result might have been different. Had the Conservative candidate been young and dynamic and the Labour candidate an unpopular local landlord, the result might have been different.
Anyway, the East Fulham result was regurgitated by commentators and politicians for years afterwards to signify Britain’s reluctance to rearm. Worse than the over-interpretation of the meaning, was that the date and the result were subsequently mis-quoted in several explanations. Stanley Baldwin, speaking as prime minister in 1936, used the East Fulham result (to which, for some reason, he added 2,160 votes to the Conservatives’ margin of defeat) to explain his slow conversion to rearmament. By contributing (even if only very slightly) to Britain’s slowness to rearm, East Fulham did cost lives.
Sometimes by-election voters are told that they are taking part in a crucial contest, only for the result to be forgotten. On other occasions, such as East Fulham, the voters are largely left alone to make up their minds on local as well as national issues, only to find out afterwards that they have changed the course of history.
In this context, Eastleigh is probably not as important as East Fulham.