Last night’s Peterborough by-election result variously produced surprise, relief and disappointment. Labour clung on to the seat they won in 2017, albeit with a vastly reduced vote share, staving off a Brexit Party campaign which, according to the betting odds at least, was expected to return the anti-EU party’s first MP.
In an interesting and significant night for all major parties, here’s what we learned:
1. The Brexit Party will wake up with mixed feelings this morning; on the one hand, a party that has been around for no time at all ran an incumbent party very close in a by-election, with nearly a third of the vote, having recently won a nationwide election. On the other hand, with the Conservatives and Labour in utter disarray, in a seat that has always been marginal and with no ‘name-brand’ candidate running, they missed an open goal.
2. It confirms the national polling picture, as the Conservatives lost more than half their 2017 percentage vote share, Labour performed almost equally badly, the Lib Dems improved dramatically and the Brexit Party won a huge share of the vote.
3. Reports of Labour shipping in activists since the weekend appears, on the surface at least, to have done the trick against the Brexit Party who had only a modest ground campaign. Labour’s ‘Get Out The Vote’ strategy has been heralded this morning while, for the time being, the Brexit Party lacks infrastructure and especially local data.They have to find a way to address that if they’re to make in-roads under First Past The Post.
4. The Conservatives would be reckless to even think about calling a General Election any time soon, at least until Brexit is sorted. With the Brexit Party and Lib Dems causing mayhem, Conservative and Labour MPs voting for a General Election in the House of Commons would truly be like turkeys voting for the proverbial.
5. Having said that, the obvious campaign slogan for Conservative strategists will be “Vote Farage, get Corbyn”. That approach worked with Ed Miliband in 2015, when the fear of a Labour coalition with the Scottish National Party was used to motivate voters into supporting the Conservatives.
6. In case it needed reinforcing with Conservative MPs, their main objective in deciding who should be their next leader must be their ability to claw back support from the Brexit Party. It may be overly simplistic to say all will be solved by “sorting Brexit”, but the reality is that the Party lost a large slug of their 2017 vote when Theresa May failed to hit the 31 March deadline. Unless and until the new leader takes the UK out of the EU by 31 October, the Party cannot recover.
7. What of Labour? I made the point on LBC in the early hours of the morning that Labour, more so than the Conservatives, are seen as the ‘nasty party’, and will continue to do so for as long as the anti-Semitism scandal still dogs them. Electing Lisa Forbes last night, herself embroiled in anti-Semitism controversy during the campaign, will do nothing to dampen the accusations levelled at those at the top of the Party who are seen as too weak on the issue.
8. Despite that, Forbes claimed in her victory speech that her campaign, fought on local issues, won over a campaign fought on a single national issue. To what extent she’s right is anyone’s guess, but it is perhaps an interesting idea that Brexit, in the microcosm of a by-election, isn’t the be-all-and-end-all to voters.
9. It’s difficult to look at the Brexit Party without thinking back to UKIP in 2014. Having won the European Parliamentary elections, UKIP came second in Newark weeks later, then ran Labour very close in Heywood and Middleton, losing by 600-odd votes. They did end up with two MPs through by-elections in Clacton and Rochester & Strood, but those were down to Conservative MPs with strong enough name-brands in seats sympathetic to UKIP, defecting and running as UKIP candidates. Could the Brexit Party try to convince disgruntled Conservative Brexiteer backbenchers to do the same this time around?
10. Of course, UKIP did not end up making an electoral breakthrough at the following General Election, where they gained 13% of the vote but only one seat under First Past The Post. Coming second in seats will not be what Nigel Farage wants, so if the Brexit Party are really here to stay, they’ll need to start thinking of a focused and realistic seat-by-seat strategy now, otherwise more nights like last night will be on the cards.