Friday 20 October 2023

No Change after Tamworth and Mid-Beds

It's squeaky bum time in Tory land. Thursday's by-elections in supposedly-safe Tamworth and supposedly-safe Mid-Bedfordshire should destroy any complacency that set in following the narrow Uxbridge hold. Tamworth was always the more likely of the two to go Labour's way. The disgraced sex pest Christopher Pincher was returned with a 20,000 majority at the last election, and when the scandal blew up last summer I thought it likely the seat would come to Labour in the event of a by-election. So it has proved. Congratulations to Sarah Edwards for becoming Labour's sole MP in Staffordshire, for the moment. Mid-Bedfordshire was going to be tougher. The seat had never returned a Labour MP and was the bluest of true blue Tory fortresses. Furthermore, there was a concern that a strong Liberal Democrat challenge, which did materialise, would split the anti-Tory vote and let them retain the seat. In the end, those fears proved unfounded. A 24,000-strong majority evaporated and Labour snatched it.

Doing the TV rounds this morning, I almost pitied Greg Hands and his defence of a pitiful performance. Putting a brave face on things, he noted Labour's absolute vote tallies were either slightly down or practically static. This suggested most Tory supporters remained at home and would turn out when presented with an exciting offer. What might this be? Hands pointed to Rishi Sunak's cancellation of HS2, the smoking ban, and abolishing A-Levels. One is left wondering how this will fire Tory-leaning hearts further down the line when they're fresh in the memory and have proven less than beguiling to the faithful. Other Tories are a bit more on the ball. David Frost, who can do deluded with the best of them, found the official optimism too much to stomach. He said both results were worse than what is getting reported by the polls, and denying the party is in a hole won't help. This is backed up by mutters faithfully relayed by the politics stenographers that Tory MPs are preparing their letters of no confidence. But, officially at least, the government are putting on a brave face and insist that they're carrying on with their "plan".

The problem for the Tories is that both by-elections could support the warm bath of continued complacency. Hands finds solace in the low turn out, but others might look at the results of Reform, the artists formerly known as the Brexit Party. Despite getting talked up incessantly by the right wing press, their performance was somewhat short of fantastic. In Tamworth Reform managed to save its deposit and polled 1,373 votes. In Mid Bedfordshire it got 3.7%, or 1,487 votes. It hardly takes a forensic mind to note Labour's respective majorities are 1,316 and 1,192. Some might think that if the Tories embraced proper Conservative policies the difference would not have been split, and both seats would have stayed blue. This argument could prove attractive to Tory MPs for reasons other than an affinity with anti-woke posturing. For one, especially among the 2019 Tories, the common sense is they won their seats because the Leave voters abandoned by Labour supported Brexit for racist reasons. Doubling down on this might save their bacon. For another, with a Labour tidal wave incoming the Tories have to hold on to as much as they can so there's something left to salvage in the aftermath. Abandoning any effort at reaching out and going for a core vote strategy might save a handful of seats for the easy life of opposition, until (they think) their turn in office comes round again. Sunak and the rest of the parliamentary party are unlikely to listen to Frost's counsel not because they're blinkered, but because peddling reaction is the only way of saving their livelihood.

What of Labour? There were plenty of superlatives doing the rounds. Keir Starmer said Labour had "smashed it" and the results were a "gamechanger". Wes Streeting also chipped in, describing last night as "extraordinary" and "historic". If it wasn't already obvious after this year's local elections that Labour is well on its way to government, it is now. But like the defeated Tories, it's unlikely these huge wins are going to make any difference to the political trajectory the party is on. Both results are more rooted in disgust with the Conservatives than enthusiasm for Starmer. Consider the behaviour of Pincher and the virtual absence of Nadine Dorries on top of the Tories' record of cronyism and corruption, and the stupid behaviour of the Tories' Tamworth candidate, a cardboard cutout in a red rosette could scarcely have done a worse job. But, you might say, Labour's shift to the right and capitulation to Tory framing on a range of issues has made the party feel like a safe choice for Tory switchers. There is certainly some truth in that. Secondly, Starmer's choice to alibi genocide in Gaza and the subsequent difficulties this has caused the party and its Muslim base appear contained. There was no electoral punishment here for uncritically supporting Israel. Therefore, if Labour are pulling off huge victories like this - and with a couple more by-elections probable in Blackpool South and Wellingborough - why change the strategy?

And then there is turnout. A central feature of Tory excuses, it barely figured in Labour's celebrations. With a swing this big, why bother lamenting? This is true up to a point. By-elections almost always have reduced turnouts compared to general elections, with numbers turning up akin to those who head to the polls for council elections. But the caveats that can be drawn from the Rutherglen victory apply here. I.e. If the support is soft or grudging, that means any party new to government is going to face legitimacy issues fairly quickly. That applies as much to Labour as anyone else. My fear is similar to what we saw in Germany at the last elections and since. The SPD, having alienated so much of its base, gifted it away to the Greens and Free Democrats but took on a soft backlash against the Christian Democrats, enabling them to lead a coalition government. That support has since evaporated and the party is tanking in the polls. Translated to Britain, Starmer is winning soft support but his stance on Israel/Palestine and many other issues have struck at the core components of Labour's voter coalition. Labour will continue winning, but when that stops it's liable to find the bedrock of its most loyal support has crumbled away. Parties that dump on the interests and aspirations of its traditional backers soon notice they cannot do that forever.


David Lindsay said...

Pitiful though it is that we are going to have a General Election about £1.7 billion, the imposition of VAT on private school fees, which is Keir Starmer's only policy difference with the Government, does not seem to dissuade Shire Tories from voting for him.

Or products of that system from standing for him. Sarah Edwards pointedly does not say where she went to school, but Alistair Strathern is an out and proud public schoolboy, like Keir Mather. Edwards's CV is lady of leisure stuff. I have been an NHS governor, and it is not a job. Of course it appears on my CV as voluntary work, but she is trying to palm it off as employment for want of anything else. Likewise, what, exactly, did she do at Oxfam? Strathern is the Bank of England's "climate lead on insurance" while cohabiting with a full-time Greenpeace activist whose demonstrations he attends regularly. The Starmer Government is taking shape, and in Strathern's case the shape of the Sunak Government is made clear.

We know that Starmer can win seats that the Conservatives held in 2019, but we do not know that he can win back seats that Labour lost to them. That happened at Wakefield in such a bizarre situation as to suggest nothing at all about anywhere else. But after having managed to lose Hartlepool, which Jeremy Corbyn never did, then Starmer failed to take Uxbridge and South Ruislip, meaning that even only one type of pre-2019 Conservative seat is susceptible to his charms.

The rolling English shires are voting for Starmer because they agree with him. The Mail and, especially, the Telegraph do their job brilliantly: holding the uniparty line on economic and foreign policy, just like The Times, while boiling their readers at an imperceptible pace from the views that their writers initially affected to hold on social policy, to the views that they always really did hold, as anyone who had ever met them had seen first hand. Those readers have also always held those views, but they look to their paper to give them permission to say so, in the way that while that subculture likes to think that it is Theresa May, far more of it is truly personified by the financial fiddles and the adulterous affairs of its therefore beloved Boris Johnson.

The Guardian has the same role in relation to economic and foreign policy, and it is just as good at it. But neither The Guardian, nor the Daily Telegraph, nor The Times, is read all that much in Hartlepool, which did not vote for Starmer, having voted twice for Corbyn. Or in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, which also did not vote for Starmer. Wakefield did vote for him, but only under the most extreme circumstances, which will not apply next year. Yet Selby and Ainsty did. Tamworth did. Mid Bedfordshire did. Well, of course they did. And her local Conservative Association came within a whisker of deselecting Suella Braverman. Well, of course it did.

Robert Dyson said...

The actors will change but the play will remain the same, as will the director and producer.

Blissex said...

«The actors will change but the play will remain the same, as will the director and producer.»

Some people say "in China you cannot change the party but the policies can change; in 'the west' the party can change but not the policies". As she commanded "There Is No Altenative".

Put another way there is are wider political differences within the CCP than among Conservatives/New Labour/LibDems. That reflects the interests they represent: while parties in "the west" almost uniformly represent finance and property interests, there are several influential interest groups in the PRC economy.

Blissex said...

Conservative MPs perhaps are not as clever as the subtle analys of our blogger, but by hanging around conservative associations they know what matters to tory voters:
«STAMP Duty should be abolished for the vast majority of homes, more than 50 Tory MPs will tell Rishi Sunak.»

So far property prices have only risen of average by 0.5% on average (which means many have fallen), confiscating from tory voters the £30-40,000 extra tax-free (on a cheap 2-bed property) gain redistributed from the lower classes which is their right under thatcherism. While many they cannot bring themselves to vote for Starmer, like in 2001 and 2005 tory voters can abstain to punish the Conservatives for confiscating their property gains.

Jay said...

As a young(ish) paid up, rain or shine canvassing party member in the Corbyn era, it feels like such empty victory to see these massive wins for "Labour", knowing come 2024 we'll simply have a less frothing version of the current government. Overtly committed to capital at home and western imperial violence abroad. And of course despite so much of it being exhaustion with the Tories and the press/elite buying Starmer's assertions he will be no threat to their power, the Labour right will take this as proof that their empty portfolio was the vote winner and mild social democracy, and the left of the party is to be buried forever.

For me it has been a personal journey from the heights of hope in 2017/2019 to a complete loss of confidence in "democracy" and the fourth estate, and powerless resignation now. Depressing.

JJ said...

@Jay. Me too, although I pretty old, but I came back to Labour because I wanted positive change.

Blissex said...

«it feels like such empty victory to see these massive wins for "Labour", knowing come 2024 we'll simply have a less frothing version of the current government.»

My impression is that New, New Labour aims to be a version of *David Cameron's* government.

«personal journey from the heights of hope in 2017/2019 to a complete loss of confidence in "democracy" and the fourth estate, and powerless resignation now.»

Already in 2001 "fanatical extremist trot" Hattersley wrote in "The Guardian" (before it was "normalized"):$
“It's no longer my party”
“It has been a difficult four years for the Labour Party's unrepentant social democrats. One by one, the policies which define our philosophy have been rejected by the Prime Minister. [...] In fact, success has emboldened the Prime Minister to move further to the Right. [...] Now that the Labour Party - at least according to its leader - bases its whole programme on an alien ideology, I, and thousands of like-minded party members, have to decide if our loyalty is to a name or to an idea. [...]

The certain knowledge that the Conservative Party would be a worse government than Labour is not enough to sustain what used to be a party of principles. [...]

At this moment Labour stands for very little that can be identified with social democracy. We could resign or we could sulk in our tents like Patroclus. Or, believing that the party does not belong to Tony Blair, we could rise up against the coup d'├ętat which overthrew the legitimate philosophy. Too many party members have chosen to retire hurt.”

My advice is to stay put, and work patiently to restore the Labour Party and take it back one day from the Mandelson Tendency entrysts. They are bound to become complacent and make mistakes; like in 2015, when they thought that One-Member-One-Vote would ensure that only neoliberals could be elected leader, as they imagined that most members were property-owning socially progressive, economically conservative PMC members like themselves.

Blissex said...

«I came back to Labour because I wanted positive change.»

There are quite a few voters who want zero change: they are alright, they have good wages or good pensions that Labour and the unions helped get them, they have nice big homes that Labour and the unions helped get them, endowed with big life-changing capital gains and rents, entirely paid for by the lower classes. So they really like Thatcher and Blair and Cameron (and now are learning to like Starmer) for making them so much money and giving them such affluent lifestyles, with no changes, no risks, no trouble. "There Is No Alternative" is something they want so badly.

My usual example of a 79-year-old retired carpenter in Cornwall: «who bought his council house in Devon in the early 80s for £17,000. When it was valued at £80,000 in 1989, he sold up and used the equity to put towards a £135,000 fisherman’s cottage in St Mawes. Now it’s valued at £1.1m. “I was very grateful to Margaret Thatcher,” he said.»