Last night we had the postscript to the ‘super Thursday’ elections, with three further parliamentary by-elections in Croydon North, Middlesbrough and Rotherham.
Any or all of these could have been problematic for Labour and could not be taken for granted. Middlesbrough has a history at local authority level of electing the independent ‘Robo-Cop’ Ray Mallon as mayor. Croydon saw Respect candidate Lee Jasper make a concerted push for both Muslim and Afro-Caribbean votes in a very ethnically mixed seat with the now customary high-profile razzmatazz of the Respect by-election machine. Rotherham was caused by the scandal over Denis MacShane’s expenses, has a Muslim community targeted by Respect, a white working-class vote targeted by the far-right, had a controversial selection, and the mid-election scandal over UKIP members being barred by the local council from being foster parents, which suddenly made UKIP (and allegations of Labour excessive political correctness) the talk of the town.
Resourcing all three of these contests at the same time, with a staff and activist base already exhausted from the 15 November contests, was always going to be a tricky balancing act for Iain McNicol as general secretary.
In the end, Labour scored a hat-trick to add to the Corby, Manchester Central and Cardiff South and Penarth wins a fortnight ago, and maintain a strong sense that momentum is running with Ed Miliband and his One Nation message.
It is worth quoting the full results:
Steve Reed (Lab) 15,898 (64.71 per cent, +8.69 per cent) Andy Stranack (C) 4,137 (16.84 per cent, -7.28 per cent) Winston McKenzie (UKIP) 1,400 (5.70 per cent, +3.97 per cent) Marisha Ray (LD) 860 (3.50 per cent, -10.48 per cent) Shasha Islam Khan (Green) 855 (3.48 per cent, +1.51 per cent) Lee Jasper (Respect) 707 (2.88 per cent, +2.35 per cent) Stephen Hammond (CPA) 192 (0.78 per cent) Richard Edmonds (NF) 161 (0.66 per cent) Ben Stevenson (Comm) 119 (0.48 per cent, +0.17 per cent) John Cartwright (Loony) 110 (0.45 per cent) Simon Lane (Nine eleven) 66 (0.27 per cent) Robin Smith (Young) 63 (0.26 per cent) Lab maj 11,761 (47.87 per cent) 7.99 per cent swing C to Lab Electorate 93,063; Turnout 24,568 (26.40 per cent, -34.25 per cent)
Andy McDonald (Lab) 10,201 (60.48 per cent, +14.60 per cent) Richard Elvin (UKIP) 1,990 (11.80 per cent, +8.10 per cent) George Selmer (LD) 1,672 (9.91 per cent, -10.00 per cent) Ben Houchen (C) 1,063 (6.30 per cent, -12.48 per cent) Imdad Hussain (Peace) 1,060 (6.28 per cent) Peter Foreman (BNP) 328 (1.94 per cent, -3.90 per cent) John Malcolm (TUSC) 277 (1.64 per cent) Mark Heslehurst (ND) 275 (1.63 per cent) Lab maj 8,211 (48.68 per cent) 3.25 per cent swing UKIP to Lab Electorate 65,098; Turnout 16,866 (25.91 per cent, -25.44 per cent)
Sarah Champion (Lab) 9,866 (46.25 per cent, +1.62 per cent) Jane Collins (UKIP) 4,648 (21.79 per cent, +15.87 per cent) Marlene Guest (BNP) 1,804 (8.46 per cent, -1.96 per cent) Yvonne Ridley (Respect) 1,778 (8.34 per cent) Simon Wilson (C) 1,157 (5.42 per cent, -11.32 per cent) David Wildgoose (Eng Dem) 703 (3.30 per cent) Simon Copley (Ind) 582 (2.73 per cent, -3.58 per cent) Michael Beckett (LD) 451 (2.11 per cent, -13.87 per cent) Ralph Dyson (TUSC) 261 (1.22 per cent) Paul Dickson (Ind) 51 (0.24 per cent) Clint Bristow (ND) 29 (0.14 per cent) Lab maj 5,218 (24.46 per cent) 7.13 per cent swing Lab to UKIP Electorate 63,420; Turnout 21,330 (33.63 per cent, -25.37 per cent)
Some points to make about these results:
• The Labour machine is humming along nicely under Iain McNicol’s management. Volunteers feel motivated and the different components of the staff (field ops, comms and the regional teams) are working together far more cohesively than in the past. Thus we are able to deliver decent votes, with an increased vote share in every case, even in low turnout by-elections in late November.
• Labour’s by-election selection process works. It remains just as important now for the NEC to draw up the shortlist for by-elections as it was in 1988 when this system was brought in after the Greenwich and Glasgow Govan disasters. As a principle I want the maximum choice for members in selections, and the maximum opportunity for people to become candidates. But in difficult by-elections it is essential that the NEC rigorously interviews candidates to check they are not vulnerable in the national media hurly-burly that descends. There is no room for sentimentality here. Candidates who would be fine in a general election or in another seat in a by-election may not make the cut under this sort of scrutiny. It is doing them a favour if they are not allowed to fight and lose a by-election and have their career cut short – they can live to become an MP another day. Those of us who don’t hear the interviews shouldn’t try to second-guess those who do.
• The NEC gave members in Croydon North and Middlesbrough a wide choice. That’s what the default position is. But in Rotherham they judged that only candidates without a political history that could be dug into were appropriate. They were right: we would have lost if we had run a local councillor given the way the UKIP fostering story exploded.
• George Galloway’s Bradford West win wasn’t about there being a market for votes to Labour’s left. It was about a communal appeal that Galloway is personally capable of making to some sections of the Muslim community, and a protest vote about Bradford council issues. This might work in the half dozen seats with a really big Muslim vote like Bradford West’s – if Labour was to passively ignore Respect like it did in Bradford. It doesn’t elsewhere. And since Bradford we have learned to fight back against Respect and tell Muslim and other voters the truth about Respect, not try to ignore them. In Rotherham and Croydon North Respect put in a lot of effort and resources, with high-profile but to my mind deeply unappealing candidates. They claimed they could win and the betting markets believed them. They were humiliated – fourth in Rotherham and sixth in Croydon. The other far-left offers – Greens, TUSC (ex-Militant) and Communists did even worse. There is no substantial set of voters looking for a left alternative to Labour’s current positioning. It is very important that we do not compromise our foreign policy commitments to promoting freedom and democracy and to our alliance with the USA to appease potential defectors to Respect, now that we know they are only an issue in a tiny number of seats.
• In contrast, there is a substantial populist protest vote to the right of the Tories, hence the strong UKIP performances in Middlesbrough and Rotherham, and that of the BNP in Rotherham too.
• UKIP are clearly a bigger problem for the Tories than us, but the fact they can do so well in gritty northern steel towns indicates we cannot just laugh them off as only appealing to ex-Tories in seaside retirement towns. They have now moved beyond being a single-issue anti-European party to a general vehicle for populist anti-politician, anti-political correctness protest voting, and they have the money and members to become a national force.
• Moderate Labour candidates seem just as popular as ever with voters. You couldn’t get much more overtly identified with New Labour and modernisation than Steve Reed, and voters in Croydon North seemed to really identify with him and like him, even when presented with a negative campaign against him by Lee Jasper.
• Labour local government can be both a source of great strength when it is well run (Steve Reed’s record in Lambeth) and great vulnerability when it screws up (Rotherham’s fostering issue). We need to put party resources into getting all our Labour-run councils to be an electoral asset.
• The coalition parties are both in a very bad place. The Tories no longer look like a national party if they are getting five or six per cent in northern towns where their populist schtick has been out-bid by UKIP.
• The Lib Dems are facing meltdown in seats where they would once have been the insurgent protest vote in by-elections. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer bunch of people.
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