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Can Labour really sleepwalk another 3 and a half years into disaster?

December 10th, 2016

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Their position continues to get worse, gradually

Lincolnshire has a habit of producing earthquakes. One in 1185 was powerful enough to badly damage Lincoln Cathedral. A more recent example, centred near Market Rasen at about 1am on 27 Feb 2008, was strong enough to wake people across large parts of the North and Midlands. To go by the reporting, the Sleaford & North Hykeham by-election didn’t generate similar tremors. The reporting is wrong; politics’ tectonic plates continue to move.

The reason why the reporters have it wrong is simple enough: there was no great drama to the election result. The Conservatives held a safe seat with a comfortable margin. No euphoric insurgents; no distraught losers. After the close call of Witney and the loss of Richmond Park to the Lib Dems, there’d be no third Tories in Trouble story. Quite the reverse.

And it’s in that reverse that the true scale of how extraordinary the result was can be seen. It was the smallest loss of vote share in any Con defence while in government since 1991. More, it was the largest Con share of the vote in a by-election during a Tory government since 1982 and the largest majority and largest percentage lead in those circumstances since 1971. This wasn’t just a hold, it was an absolute monster.

At the same time, Labour dropped back from second to fourth, losing 7% in the process (a net swing of 2.2% from Lab to Con). In fact, it was the sixth consecutive by-election where Labour has lost vote share when the Conservatives have been defending. In five of the six, Labour started in second place.

To compound the bad news for the Red team yesterday, YouGov published a poll for The Times which gave the Conservatives a 17% lead and Labour a share of just 25%. By any objective reckoning, those are appalling figures for Labour. To be recording them with the Tories 19 months into their term in government, divided and appearing a little rudderless on Brexit, is nothing short of catastrophic. Not since 1983 has Labour scored so poorly in opposition (and those came either side of a landslide defeat, not in mid-term).

Yet it’s the nature of slow decline that we rapidly accept and normalise each occasion when the boundaries are pushed that little bit further. If it feels bad for Labour, it’s only that bit more so than it was last month. After all, Labour recorded three 26’s in September/October; what’s another 1%? That could simply be sampling or methodology couldn’t it?

It could, and to some extent sampling probably is a part of it. The extremes in any polling sequence may well be outliers and are highly likely to have some sampling error. Even so, now that one 25 has been published, the next one – should there be a next one – won’t be quite as shocking, and the next one will be less likely to be an outlier if there is still an overall downward trend. Psychologically, there are only so many times you can hear ‘another bad poll’ before they all start to sound the same.

That’s an attitude Labour can’t afford to develop. If it does, then apart from the shock of the loss of real elections – a by-election defeat, local election losses in May – there won’t be any action taken to remedy the problem and the party will continue to sleepwalk towards the cliff-edge while wishing for a Tory collapse (which isn’t entirely impossible given the strains of the Brexit debate and process but which would, nonetheless, disguise Labour’s failings). Without action, there’s little chance of recovery.

Then there’s the other side of the pincer. UKIP didn’t have a great Sleaford by-election considering the size of the Leave vote and the extent to which the Lib Dems’ attention was on Richmond Park. That, however, might simply be more evidence to Paul Nuttall as to why UKIP should primarily target the working class wavering- or ex-Labour Leave voters ahead of Tories. Nuttall himself is clearly lining himself up for the expected Leigh by-election next year. If UKIP can make serious inroads into Labour’s 34% lead over them there (or even win – a swing on the scale that they managed in nearby Heywood & Middleton in 2014 would deliver the seat), that might well determine UKIP’s strategic targeting decisions for 2020 in favour of Red over Blue. The Tories would be well-advised to soft-pedal that election, should it come.

Which returns us to the question, what will Labour do about it? It’s not inevitable that they’ll follow their Scottish colleagues into disaster. They themselves remain best-placed to do something about it in the 3½ years before May 2020. After the experience of this summer though, can they summon the willpower and the support that’ll be needed to provide leadership, a challenge to the Tories and a coherent and attractive policy platform? If they can, someone will be worthy of the prize that awaits at the end.

David Herdson