By Luke Akehurst
—‘Super Thursday’ – the simultaneous elections last month for three MPs, 41 police and crime commissioners and the first elected mayor of Bristol – was an interesting, though quirky, test of Labour’s midterm standing.
The three parliamentary by-elections provide the best guide. Although people use by-elections as a midterm protest vote, they behave more like they would in a general election than they do in local and European elections where other factors frequently come into play.
The by-election results indicate Labour is where the party needs to be and are in line with the latest opinion polls. Corby was the first Tory seat that has come up in a by-election in this parliament and hence the first real test of Labour’s ability to gain ground from the government. It is a useful test case as it is a key marginal that needs to be taken to form a government, and includes a mixture of Labour areas in the town itself where we needed to motivate our vote, and outlying middle England villages and small towns in east Northamptonshire where we needed to pick up classic marginal swing voters.
Labour passed that test with flying colours, gaining a 7,791 majority with a 12.7 per cent swing. The United Kingdom Independence party’s 14.3 per cent of the vote presents David Cameron with the strategic dilemma of losing votes on both flanks at once. The Liberal Democrats were humiliated, coming fourth. Labour actually outperformed its national opinion poll swing, which is about nine per cent. This is testament to a by-election campaign that got the local politics right, the organisation perfect, and had a strong local candidate. The ‘One Nation’ messaging from Ed Miliband’s conference speech was roadtested and worked well.
The other two by-elections confirmed the strong national picture. Lucy Powell took 69.1 per cent of the vote in Manchester Central, a 16.8 per cent swing that exceeded that in Corby. The Liberal Democrat vote was halved in the kind of seat the party had recently had hopes in, while Respect got just 182 votes, having hinted over the summer that it might win. In Cardiff South and Penarth, a historically less safe seat, Stephen Doughty took 47.3 per cent of the vote, with an 8.4 per cent swing. These results indicate our core vote is reasonably enthused, and that Bradford West was an aberration caused by extreme local circumstances rather than an indicator of a wider problem.
The PCC election results were a somewhat surreal mixed bag due to extremely low turnout and the intervention of strong independent candidates in some areas, who were seen as credible by an electorate that thought policing should not be politicised. Labour held all the nine notionally Labour PCC areas it had won in England in the 2010 general election. This is no mean achievement as some of them, such as Nottinghamshire, were very marginal. The results in Wales were more disappointing, with three of the four PCC areas narrowly lost. We need to explore whether this was just bad luck or indicates a wider political problem. In contrast to Labour’s performance in its heartlands, the Tories had catastrophic results in theirs, losing nine of the areas they were notionally defending to independents. Labour’s notional ‘gains’ were Lancashire, Derbyshire and, most spectacularly, Bedfordshire; all areas with parliamentary battleground seats.
In the seats we did not win there were some magnificent performances in shire areas well outside the party’s comfort zone. Labour’s Jane Basham actually won the first preference vote in Suffolk and only lost on transfers. James Plaskitt in Warwickshire found himself in the same situation, as did our most high-profile candidate, John Prescott, in Humberside. Godfrey Daniel came second in Sussex, which bodes well for the marginals of Brighton, Crawley, Hastings and Hove. Clare Moody was second in Wiltshire, again suggesting we are putting the work in in Swindon. Labour was also second in Cambridgeshire, Cheshire, Cumbria, Hertfordshire, Leicestershire, Northamptonshire, Thames Valley (where we polled well in marginal Reading and Oxford) and by default (as they were two horse races) in Staffordshire and North Yorkshire.
In terms of the aggregated PCC nationwide vote we comfortably outpolled the Tories, with a 6.3 per cent lead, despite the distorting effect of independents taking over 22 per cent of the vote. The Liberal Democrat vote collapsed in the 24 seats they managed to field candidates in, although they subsequently claimed a couple of winning independent PCCs and the new mayor of Bristol as ‘secret’ Liberal Democrats – quite an audacious con-trick to play on the electorate.
The PCC elections were so idiosyncratic that they are not too much of a guide to future polls. They do, perhaps, indicate that we should be cautious about how many shire county councils we can win next year (only a handful look in play), and focus more on how many councillors we can gain rather than councils we can pick up. They also suggest that, while many voters are angry enough with the Tories to teach them a lesson by abstaining or voting independent, we have not yet reached levels of enthusiasm for Labour where they will rush out to switch to us without the kind of intensive organisational effort, strong candidates and strong local messages we saw in Corby.
Luke Akehurst is a councillor in the London borough of Hackney
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