Lets get the good news out there first. Last night’s results were worse for the Tories and the Lib Dems than they were for Labour. The Lib Dems lost a deposit, the Tories decisively lost clacton, and Labour held Heywood and Middleton.
There ends the good news.
The by-elections in Clacton and Heywood and Middleton should be an astronomical wake up call/kick up the arse for all three of Britain’s major parties.
If the Labour Party insists on simply saying – after coming within a few hundred votes of losing a safe Labour seat to UKIP and getting only 11% of the vote in working-class Essex – that this is a bad night for Cameron, without acknowledging we have massive lessons to learn from this too, then it looks like we missed the point and it looks like we’re complacent.
If the Labour Party insists on saying that we’ve increased our vote share in Heywood and Middleton, without acknowledging that we’ve put on only 1% since 2010 (a poor year for the party), then that looks like we’re not facing up to the gravity of the situation.
If we say that the vote was only so close because the Tory vote collapsed (which it did) without acknowledging that UKIP unified most of anti-Labour vote into a single column in an otherwise safe, Northern Labour seat, I find that a pretty scary omission.
Heywood and Middleton was nearly a dagger to the heart of the Labour Party. In the end it was a painful near miss instead. But a near miss is only worth anything if we learn from it.
For many in the North, voting Tory is a non-starter after the brutal Thatcher years. And yet voting UKIP comes with less of the baggage. Labour are right to say that UKIP are “More Tory than the Tories” – but we also need to have a more compelling case to explain why disillusioned voters should even give us a second look in the first place. We aren’t there yet.
Only last night it was revealed that Nigel Farage has been banging on about banning people with HIV from moving to the UK. The man is a walking 1980s Tory tribute act, and yet his incoherent anti-politics rabble came close to taking a safe Labour seat just seven months before a general election when we’re seeking to return to power. Labour’s UKIP problem is undoubtedly smaller – at present – than the Tory UKIP problem. But in opposition you hope not to have these problems. In opposition you’re meant to be the stick with which people beat the government, and you’re meant to be the vessel for people’s hopes and dreams. Instead, for far too many people, when they want to beat Cameron they want to beat Miliband and all other politicians too – so they turn to UKIP, not Labour.
And we as a party have to take our hefty share of the responsibility for that, and for our failure to inspire those voters.
When I wrote about Labour’s inability to reach out to our core vote earlier this week, this is what I was talking about.
When Luke Akehurst asked searching questions about Labour’s electoral strategy, this is what he was talking about.
What’s clear is that Labour’s general election campaign cannot plod on regardless after results like these and hope for the best in 2015. That truly would be a campaign strategy worthy of Mr Micawber. We must be not be cowed in our offer, nor limited in the scope of our ambition. We should aim to win 40% of the votes and be disappointed if we fall short, rather than setting our sights lower and bracing ourselves for a lesser result. We should grasp once again the organising rooted in our communities of Arnie Graf and embrace firmly the genuinely transformative agenda – pushing power away from the centre and towards people – that Jon Cruddas has advocated.
So yes, Labour is going to have to talk about immigration and welfare. And I believe that we have it within ourselves to do that in a way that speaks to voters concerns without pandering to the whims of those who want us to abandon our beliefs to the politics of the right. But we must also talk about the kind of change we want to see in Britain – on housing, jobs and wages – where our ambition is currently too limited.
All of the major political parties are in their own kind of torpor this morning. I can only realistically speak to what Labour must do next. But I can say this – wake up mainstream parties, while you still have the chance. Last night was not good news for any of you.
Wake up whilst you still have a chance.