Sunday 5 December 2021

Belated Notes on the Old Bexley Votes

Unlike some on the left, I thought Labour's performance in the aforementioned by-election (following the death of James Brokenshire) was a fairly decent performance. A 10-point swing in a no-hoper seat, the virtual disappearance of the Liberal Democrat vote (but, interestingly, not the Greens), the highest proportion of the vote since 2001, and the first time in a parliamentary by-election Labour has advanced under Keir Starmer. The leader and his office will be happy with that one, and judging by the ostentatious backslapping the Tories gave themselves throughout Friday they're relieved Labour didn't pull off a Chesham and Amersham.

Nothing to see here then. A feel good story for Labour as pollsters put the parties around level pegging? Yes, but it does flag up a couple of weaknesses the party could do well to reflect on. The first is the fact Labour didn't pull off an upset. Between 1992 and 1997, the very mention of a by-election put fear into the hearts of Tory high command as super safe seats tumbled to Labour and the Liberal Democrats. These disasters testified to the contempt with which the Tories were held by the public-at-large and the sense of momentum gathering in the opposition parties' sails. Fast forward to today and Labour is no beneficiary of this enthusiasm, and it's not hard to fathom why. It does not exist. Instead Starmer benefited from tactical moves from LibDem voters, but this proved nowhere near enough to unseat the Tories. Had the party managed to turn out its 2019 vote however it could have been possible.

There's a but coming. By-elections always fall off in turnout, but this issue is particularly concerning in Old Bexley and Sidcup. At 33.5%, participation more than halved on the general election - which returned a higher than national average turnout at just shy of 70%. This is much lower than Hartlepool (47%), Chesham and Amersham (52%), and Batley and Spen (also 47%). Yes, the Tory vote stayed home but so did Labour's previous support too. This suggests serious disengagement in a seat where the turnout would be expected to be high. You don't need to whip out Maslow's hierarchy of needs to know there might be other pressing concerns on voters' minds presently, but alienation from politics can't be discounted. We have Boris Johnson's antics, but also an apathetic attitude toward the Labour leader himself. Vox pops in the Tory press from the by-election's frontline found former Tory voters nonplussed by his reluctance to oppose and overall grey blur quality. Who'd have thought "showing leadership" by attacking his own party would impress less than taking the fight to the Tories? Perhaps had Labour tried commanding politics throughout the Covid crisis by offering a mix of suggestions and criticism, ordinary punters might have noticed. In other words, Labour is not offering the alternative disgruntled Tories are looking for. And this is after consistently positioning the party to the right for 20 months. Time for a rethink?

The second issue relates to that Green vote. In Chesham the Green vote declined slightly. In Old Bexley, the proportion it won grew modestly. That is to say while the LibDems were squeezed by Labour, the Greens were not. And this is a problem. As argued previously, there is significant overlap between the new core vote won to Labour by Corbynism and that pursued by the Greens. While this support has piled up in the big cities, it is nevertheless spread everywhere. The more Starmer punches left and ignores the hopes and interests of our people, the more they will look at alternatives and, presently, the Green Party is the best placed to benefit. This played itself out at an extremely modest level in Bexley, and it's not about to result in the Greens sweeping up Labour seats, but enough votes bleeding to the Greens here and there imperil Labour's chances in the marginals it has to win.

What might negate this is the rebranded Brexit Party, or Reform UK (REFUK for short, appropriately enough). After dismal council by-election results, getting six per cent on Thursday and beating the Greens and LibDems into third place had poured some juice into a tank running on vapours. There is a hard right vote that Johnson was able to win back to the Tories in 2019, and it shows some are happy to use a by-election to protest in that political direction. If REFUK also do creditably in North Shropshire, Nigel Farage's claim that he's mulling over a return to politics might help him make up his mind.

An uninteresting by-election, then. Albeit one in which all the tensions and potentials simmering beneath the surface of politics in England were present and made themselves felt. The Tories were bowed but not broken and Labour made modest progress, but the irritants at their flanks are showing they might just make their lives much more difficult in the future.

Image Credit


jacob said...

Bexley result achieved lowest Labour turnout since 1983. Nothing else to say.

Anonymous said...

One factor about the by-election was the name of the constituency. This led reporters unfamiliar with the geography of out SE London to head towards both of those named areas, which are generally well to do. However, the vast bulk of the constituency is in rather more downmarket Welling, where instead of wealth its more routine white collar, service jobs and some blue collar families. Old hands will remember Welling as the place the BNP picked as its national HQ all those years ago which gives a feel as to the zeitgeist, possibly. Given that demographic, Labour's showing was credible, although I suspect the Labour vote came from Sidcup, if anywhere.

Blissex said...

«Yes, the Tory vote stayed home but so did Labour's previous support too»
«Bexley result achieved lowest Labour turnout since 1983»

Indeed, and best appreciated in the context of the past 30 years:

1992: 40,520/49,449: Con 24,450, Lab 8,751, LD 6,438
1997: 42,133/67,841: Con 21,608, Lab 18,039, LD 8,284, UKI 489
2001: 44,572/68,226: Con 19,130, Lab 15,785, LD 5,792, UKI 1,426
2010: 45,492/65,699: Con 24,625, Lab 8,768, LD 6,996, UKI 1,532, Gre 271
2015: 46,748/66,035: Con 24,682, Lab 8,879, LD 1,644, UKI 8,528, Gre 1,336
2017: 48,042/66,005: Con 29,545, Lab 14,074, LD 1,572, UKI 1,619, Gre 820
2019: 46,145/66,104: Con 29,786, Lab 10,384, LD 3,822, Gre 1,477
2021: 21,733/64,831: Con 11,189, Lab 6,711, LD 647, RUK 1,432, Gre 831

The collapse of the Labour (and LD) vote in Bexley is not a half-victory for New Labour, but a very bad result, because it should be judged not compared to the collapse of the Conservative vote, but in the context of the pursuit of the "soft" tory protest vote by Starmer and Davey. Here is Davey hoping it will work in Shropshire:
We’re really clear that the Lib Dems are the challengers: if you want to send a message to Boris Johnson, vote for us.

in a mostly-tory seat, a New Labour loss of 53% of the votes since 2017 and 36% since 2017, in a by-election against what looks like (if one ignores property prices) a clownnish government, implies a colossal failure of the targeting of "soft" tory protest voters.

The swing of 10% means nothing because it was not due to the mythical switch of "soft" tory voters to New Labour, but to abstention, as tory voters knew the Conservative would win regardless.

This nothing different from the bad results and collapses in Chesham and in Hartlepool:

2017: total 55,252, Con 33,514, Lab 11,374, LD 7,179, Gre 1,660
2019: total 55,978, Con 30,850, Lab 7,166, LD 14,627, Gre 3,042
2021: total 37,954, Con 13,489, Lab 622, LD 21,517, Gre 1,480

2017: total 41,835, Con 14,319, Lab 21,969, LD 746, UKI 4,801
2019: total 41,037, Con 11,869, Lab 15,464, LD 1,696, BXP 10,603
2021: total 29,933, Con 15,529, Lab 8,589, LD 349, ind. 2,904

Anonymous said...

Did Labour want to win? How hard did they campaign? Your voters don't start wandering off to no-hope parties like the Greens unless there's something badly wrong and I suspect it's not just that nobody likes Starmer.

Anonymous said...

Can they afford to campaign aggressively, Anonymous? Aren't the coffers bare.

Starmer is doomed because he can't get the vote out. I have been saying this since January last year.
Andy Burnham otoh, whose politics I do not share, probably could.

Blissex said...

«Starmer is doomed because he can't get the vote out»

But my guess is that Starmer does not want to get the "trot" vote out, turnout was the aim of "the wrong Miliband" and Corbyn, Starmer's aim seems to be to switch "soft" tory votes (“There Is No Alternative”) to New Labour.

In Bexley+Sidcup this manifestly did not happen, the Conservatives lost a lot of votes, but so did New Labour; in Chesham there was a big switch of "soft" tory votes, but to the LibDems, and New Labour was wiped out; in Hartlepool there was instead a big switch of votes from New Labour (and the LibDems) to the Conservatives.

The past year has tested to destruction the claim that just like in the late 1990s it is always true that "centrist" leaders with "centrist" programmes get 20 point ahead of "incompetent, sleazy" Conservative governments as "soft" tory voters feel the pull of the "centre".

Even the editorial opinion of "The Guardian" is starting to realize this:

Labour risks ending up being Conservative-lite on the economy and Conservative-lite on its principles. It would be a mistake for him to think voters just want healthier versions of Tory policies. Labour’s “diet Johnson-ism” would pale in comparison to the real thing.

Blissex said...

«Who'd have thought "showing leadership" by attacking his own party»

As Tony Blair emphatically stated the "New Labour Party" is not the "Labour Party", even if it astutely uses the latter's branding to collect the "anyone with a red rosette" votes. Starmer is just attacking the Labour Party members who have infiltrated the New Labour Party and even managed to take it over 2015-2019 with "antidemocratic tricks" like OMOV. This is part of his strategy of proving that he is a solid "anti-communist" to "soft" tory voters in swing seats, with results like those in Chesham, Hartlepool, Bexley. He is also proving that by his hardcore endorsement for hard brexit to break England free from the "collectivist" EUSSR. "We were always at war against Eurasia".
Rah! Rah! ;-)