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A brief note on by-election commentary

Labour won the Heywood and Middleton by-election last night.

Apparently, the result is a crisis for Labour.

Labour increased its share of the vote over the 2010 general election.

Apparently the result is a crisis for Labour.

Nigel Farage says “We are ripping lumps out of the old Labour vote in north England”.

Leave aside that weird formation of ‘north England’ and take a look at the numbers.

First, the turnout. It’s low, a third down on the general election of 2010, which itself had a low turnout. The Labour playbook for defensive byelections is to focus on solid promises (those who have promised to vote Labour, and have voted in the past) and not stir the pot too much – bluntly, to depress turnout. It looks as if the UKIP insurgency couldn’t counter act that, and as if the other parties didn’t stir the pot either. Hence the Labour focus on the NHS, which will motivate traditional solid Labour promises, but not stir the pot. Refusing to engage with UKIP is tactical, not strategic, and the right tactic, judging by the result. If you don’t understand that your majority can shrink while your share of the vote rises because of such tactics, you’re probably not very good at maths, and certainly not qualified to comment on electoral outcomes.

So where did that UKIP vote come from? Well, the Tories and the Libdems, by the look of it.

This is a northern Labour seat. What binds the Libdem vote is not a kind of middle-aged hipsterness, a trendy affection for the issues espoused by the New Statesmen and a sneaking admiration for Caroline Criado-Perez, but a much more Janus like combined hatred of Labour and anti-Tory conservatism. When he set out, after becoming Tory leader, to espouse what he called Liberal conservatism, David Cameron was acknowledging that Tory is still a toxic label in working class England, a reminder of the landed gentry and the remote power that they wield. The idea that we need the words Tory and conservative, not because they are synonyms, but because they describe different things that can co-exist in one party, is probably too complicated for some people, but you won’t understand British electoral politics unless you understand that division.

Heywood and Middleton are the kind of places where forty years ago you would have found Rent and Ratepayer candidates in every council by-election, and people who could remember that the Orange ribbons of the Liberal candidates were a guarantee that, unlike some of the Labour support, they weren’t Catholics.

Commenting on the Heywood and Middleton by election without referencing the turnout, Labour’s tactics, and the collapse of the Conservative and LibDem vote, or even the fact that a proportion of the LibDem vote was always the ‘Anyone but Labour’ vote is either politically illiterate or a shameless attempt to win arguments within the Labour party by misrepresenting what the numbers tell us.

Incidentally, if you’ve read this far, and are pondering what my response to the oft reported sentiment that the people of Middleton ‘want their country back’ is I’ll tell you. My country, our country, is a place where we oppose tyranny and welcome those who share our values; with Remembrance Sunday looming large on the political agenda, if I were advising Ed Miliband I’d make damned sure he went to the Polish War Memorial in London, just as I will make my annual visit to the Polish section of our local cemetery, where brave Poles who died fighting in the RAF against Fascism are buried and commemorated. If I were advising Ed I’d make damned sure he pays a visit to the Memorial Gates on Constitution Hill, and I’d make damned sure he reminds people that his dad was one of the many who believed in this Britain, our Britain, as a place where freedom and tolerance were the watchword.


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This entry was posted on October 10, 2014 by in Uncategorized.

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