Three by-elections. Three wins. Three swings to Labour. It’s hard to be too critical after a night like that, and so I hope I won’t be. Any sensible Labour supporter would have taken last night’s results at any point during the by-election campaigns.
That’s 6 by-election wins in just two weeks – the Labour Party has had worse electoral periods than this.
Party staff (or as it’s often customary to describe them, “the party machine”) deserve particular credit for last night’s results. Many of them have been on an election footing for the best part of 2012. A significant number of them rattled from by-elections in Corby, Manchester and Cardiff straight onto the next set in Croydon, Middlesbrough and Rotherham. They work incredibly hard, and rarely get the thanks they deserve. Thank you. I hope you get the break you all so richly deserve – and that you’re asleep and not reading this.
(That’s not to say, of course that some of the higher ups in the party machine (I’m looking at your NEC) don’t have questions to answer around how Labour selects by-election candidates, but I’ll be coming back to that issues later…)
Credit too is due to MPs who worked so hard on by-election campaigns – perhaps especially John Healey who seems to have held together a fractious CLP in Rotherham when things could have rapidly spiralled out of control after the contentious – to say the least – selection.
And of course, to party members from across the country who gave up their free time at a time of the year when most sensible people are indoors at night and Christmas shopping at the weekend.
The underlying tale of last night, as I indicated in the liveblog last night, was the collapse of the Lib Dems, and the rise of UKIP as a potential second party in the North. In huge swathes of the country people who would never dream of voting Tory would consider voting UKIP. Despite many of them being unreconstructed 1980s Thatcherites, UKIP’s brand is not in the toilet, which for many northerners is exactly where the Tory brand resides.
As for the Lib Dems, I can’t say anything that hasn’t been said already – 8th in a by-election is appalling. Deposit losing is becoming the norm.
(Incidentally, a strong UKIP performance in the general election coupled with a Lib Dem collapse would be a massive boost to Labour’c chances of forming a majority government…)
But this shouldn’t obscure how badly the Tories performed too. They got fewer votes across the three by-elections than UKIP and barely more than the Lib Dems. This was a rejection of both coalition parties, and a thumping for the government.
But it was also a rejection of mainstream politics in general.
The rise of fringe parties should concern anyone who cares for any of our mainstream parties, as should the second set of low turnout by-elections this month*. Politics remains in crisis and apathy at party politics and the political system is rife. The BNP coming third in Rotherham is a serious cause for concern – as is the huge majority of people who thought that voting at all wasn’t worth the hassle.
Sure, there were mitigating circumstances – time of year, recent PCC elections and the fact that the result seemed pre-ordained – but that doesn’t escape the fact that almost 75% of people thought not voting was the best choice for them. Labour had a good night last night, especially when (in Rotherham particularly) it could have gone so horribly wrong. It’s hard to be too critical – but even in defeat you should know your enemy.
And last night it wasn’t UKIP, Respect, or the Tories.
It was apathy.
* – caveat, Corby’s turnout was quite good for a by-election, Rotherham could have been far worse, and Croydon’s turnout figure was deflated by the sheer size of the electoral register