The by-elections in this Parliament are four or five party contests

Late last year I argued on this site that the progressive alliance strategy favoured by Compass might work in by elections, but not in general elections. Afterwards I suggested that Brexit dominates British politics. Poll data is starting to indicate people vote for their Referendum position – and a recent poll suggested only 15% of Leavers were prepared to vote Labour. Put these two factors together with recent by-elections and the run up to the Copeland by election becomes a tale of five parties.

Tim Farron argued after the Witney by election on October 20th  that the Liberals were back, restoring three party politics.

The Richmond by-election seemed to back this but as UKIP stood down and backed the Tory Candidate, Goldsmith only nominally being independent, as the Greens stood down and backed the Lib Dems, this was three party politics by proxy. In the event the progressives backed the Lib Dems, Labour voters also went with the Lib Dems, and the reactionaries showed they could form their own tactical alliances

Witney offered more pointers to the new world of five party politics in England though as turnout dropped from 73.3% to 46.8% there has to be caution. But with the Greens and UKIP doing badly on October 20th – factors which may have helped the Richmond decisions – and losing their deposits, Labour losing half its vote and the Lib Dems having a 23.4% swing, Farron looked to be correct, and to be reinforced by Richmond.

However both Richmond and Witney were Remain seats in the referendum, though Witney only by 53.5% to 45.4% and a pro Brexit Tory held the seat, while the same did not happen in the much stronger Remain seat of Richmond.

The role of Brexit has yet to be tried in a strong Leave seat. But Copeland and now Stoke are just such a seats.

In Copeland 62% of those who voted going for Leave, and this poses obvious problems for Labour. Particularly if it tries to trim towards Brexit.

However the big issues are for UKIP or the Lib Dems. For the Lib Dems, Copeland looks like a lost deposit. Their vote dropped from 4,365 in 2010 to 1,368 in 2015. No surge in a Leave constituency is likely for a Remain party, and a bad result could destabilise Farron in his own neighbouring seat. The Greens I regard as electorally irrelevant, a party that only exists to pay over lost deposits. They rose from 389 to 1,179 at the general elections, but there is nothing in Copeland for them but paying more money to HM Treasury.

UKIP faces the most interesting problems. While the Lib Dems are pretty much dead in Copeland, UKIP with 3rd place and 6,148 votes is on the horns of a dilemma. If they don’t stand and back the Tories – and the Tories might well have a Leave candidate – this raises the issue of what the point is of UKIP?  While we mull over that question, the issue for Labour is how to combat its appeal to some Labour voters.

Paul Nuttall has made a good start as leader, and his stance of taking Labour votes and challenging for their seats is a sound one, with Copeland and Stoke offering a couple of tantalising chances of doing just that, and perhaps overtaking the Tories to take the seat. Long odds but not impossible if the Tories stay split over Europe.

Certainly it would be difficult for UKIP to keep standing aside in by elections. They did badly in Witney, and stood down in Batley and Richmond as these were unusual elections. But can they afford to stand down in Copeland? This a seat they will find challenging. But can they afford to duck the challenge?

What is clear is that the by-election scene is not a 3 party race. Four and even five parties are in the frame, if we give the Greens a place. For Copeland, the scene is particularly confusing, but this is a Britexit seat and the progressive parties are on the back foot. If the Greens decide not to stand – which could threaten their future, making three elections in a row they have not fought – then we have a four party race. How that plays out will be tortuous, and imponderable. All that can be said is that Farron is wrong. We are not back to three party politics.

Trevor Fisher

This article was first published in Labour Uncut

Labour, Corbyn and the Polls

Pollsters in the UK do not have a very good standing, having got the two most important voting tests of the last two years, the 2015 election and the 2016 EU referendum, wrong by significant margins. Nevertheless, they are collectively not completely at variance with the results, and an average of the results of polls over a period of time is probably a fair indication of the actual inclination of voters towards the various parties.

[Read more…]

Lessons From America

During the autumn of 2015 I spent some time in both Pennsylvania and Maryland. On reflection — especially since November — the trip seems a whole lot more interesting, and significant, than it did then. The trip gave me a grasp of some of the challenging issues facing the Democrats.

This was not a political trip, I was in the US to look at the way a number of States and Cities organised their arts and culture sectors. I was particularly interested in places that had some relevance to Birmingham and the West Midlands and so the visit concentrated on post industrial regions with large minority ethnic communities.

This area (especially the cities of Philadelphia, Pittsburg and Baltimore) were about as solid a Democratic homeland as you could expect to find. All of the administrators and politicians I met were Democrat. These were places where the big political competition was always the primary election for candidate, rather than the actual real-world election. In the 2016 elections the cities remained Democrat but in the suburbs and smaller towns voters threw away their historic political bonds.

Trump had not yet won the Republican nomination but he was everywhere. When in the US my personal survival strategy involves never ever switching on the TV in the hotel room, though on this occasion there was no need. Every TV in every hotel lobby, bar or restaurant was showing CNN and one person dominated. Trump’s tactics were rather basic but very clear. Each morning about 10.00 am he would say something extraordinarily outrageous and he would then dominate the new reports until the evening when the coverage of the political rallies would start. Throughout the day Trump’s opponents — Republican and Democrat — would be playing catch up, effectively dancing to The Donald’s tune. Trump seemed to base his strategy around either the laziness of 24 hour news editors or a lack of real editorial capacity to challenge.

On the last night of our trip my colleagues and I took out a group out who had organised our Baltimore itinerary for a thank you meal. Each one of our guests was a lifelong Democrat. I spent most of my evening talking to a fascinating woman, an academic with an impressive portfolio of community activity, who was a long serving and senior Democrat (Baltimore is next door to Washington). Since November I’ve though about this evening a lot and the more I think about the conversations the more significant I think they are for the future of progressive politics on both sides of the Atlantic.

Surely, I asked, Trump would blow up? They weren’t counting on it. What’s more at this point in the campaign it was estimated that Trump had spent virtually nothing on marketing. He was being treated very seriously. They knew that Trump was ruthlessly exploiting the concerns that many people had about the ‘authenticity’ of politicians. Who did they all want to know about? Corbyn. They were fascinated at the apparent breaking of the conventional Labour machine. Might the once formidable Clinton machine, and the Democrat operation in general, suffer a similar fate?

At the time the first Clinton email ’scandal’ had yet to subside. I was told that the Democrats were worried and that plans were being made to parachute in an alternative candidate if Clinton was forced to withdraw. Who might that be? Kerry, Biden and Gore were all being seriously considered as candidates. But were they not all of the same age and political generation as Clinton?

The first problem they discussed with me was the Party’s failure over recent congressional elections. They had simply lost a generation of political leaders, especially those that had experience of political management. Did that matter? “We’re beginning to realise it does” came the reply.

Biden, I was told, would clean up if he stood as a candidate. He would suck up the vast majority of the black and hispanic votes in the country. Biden was judged to have far stronger support in these communities than Clinton. Why? Biden was considered to be properly authentic. “What you see with Joe is what you get.” My guide was a senior Black American activist.

The problem faced by the Clinton campaign, even then, was the ‘Clinton establishment’ and all that went with it and an almost monarchist view of the right to succeed. Many Democrats in the USA see the Clintons in much the same way as we see the Blairs. Both of these ‘royal families’ have adopted the same confusing mixture of business and charitable foundation operation. Here in the UK Bill Clinton remains something of a hero amongst progressives but as Francis Beckett and David Henke showed in 2015 (Blair Inc: The man behind the mask) this might be because Blair and Clinton carved up the world between them, each operating in a different part of the globe.

The email ‘scandal’ itself was not so much the issue as a growing notion that the Clintons operated in a different space to everyone else and played to different rules. There was an overwhelming sense that this mode of operation had had its day, or at least they wished that it had!

So why Hillary? Well, the history and image of the Clinton’s was simply too strong to resist. They had the power, the image, and the clout with donors. It was simply Hillary’s turn. Baring scandal, there was simply no other rightful candidate. And yet those I was talking to had very real reservations and concerns about the inevitability of the position that they found themselves in. Even twelve months before the ballot they were not at all confident. Politics was changing they told me and the Democrats had to change quickly, it’s just that had little clarity about their future direction and where it might lead.

While my hosts and guests were fascinated with Corbyn it is worth noting that this didn’t translate to Bernie Sanders. He couldn’t win they argued and US polls seem to show that was the case. Their fascination with Corbyn seemed to me to be grasping at straws, hoping there was a new and emerging political model that might prevail.

I’ve revisited these discussions a little since Trump’s election. Progressives may trumpet the popular vote as, yes, Clinton polled far more votes than Trump, but in a set political system the political machine simply failed. And it failed badly. My friends are vey clear that simply throwing money at a problem didn’t work last year and, most likely, is not guaranteed to work in the future. This was the first Presidential Election in a long time that didn’t break the expenditure record, simply because Trump spent so little. The machine is becoming less important than the clarity of message. And, of course, in the US system it is the Electoral Collage that determines the result and not a simple nation-wide majority.

It seems to me that progressives on both sides of the Atlantic are following the same path and that there is much to share along the journey. In reflecting back to these conversations there are lessons to be learnt for Labour here in the UK.

Firstly, we need put the Blair and Campbell year behind us. Yes, they were very successful in their time but the electorate has moved on and they see things in very different ways than many of Labour’s core activists do. Too many Labour activists look backwards and remain obsessed with their own turf. For example, Alistair Campbell remains a great figure for many — but we haven’t properly acknowledged the rise of the new Tory equivalents, ruthless operators like Dominic Cummings who ran the leave campaign; the ‘force’ is with them now. The soap-opera like glitz of the Clintons and the Blairs no longer cuts little ice with real voters.

Secondly, we need able politicians who are competent political managers. We should be wary of long periods of opposition. A focus on abstract campaigning is not enough — it certainly wasn’t during the Thatcher and Major years. We need to more carefully focus on the skills and achievements of our local government leaders, especially in the big cities. We should watch very carefully the work of the new regional Mayors for these are people who will be determined to make a difference. These political leaders are as much on the front line as our Parliamentary Front Bench. These are people who understand the importance of the machine but also appreciate that being seen as an effective fighter for your own community — for your own people — is even more important.

Finally, Labour — both left and right — have to get a better handle on the media, both traditional and new. We cannot simply treat the mainstream media with suspicion or disdain. We need front bench spokespeople who are media savvy, who see their jobs as taking every opportunity to harry and harass their opponents. We all know about Trump and Twitter and yet it was his use of traditional news media that was most significant in winning over voters. Social media campaigns — as MORI and others have effectively demonstrated — simply see us talking to the converted. Yes, they can rally the troops but they have very little impact on the wider community.

As political activists we have to properly understand that this world owes us very little. The past might provide benchmarks and pride with past achievements, but it is always the future that counts.

It is a long road back. It will mean a lot of hard graft. Yet without the confidence of the wider community it will all be wasted effort.

Andy Howell
11th January 2017

The Progressive Alliance – first challenge

The Richmond By election before Christmas was a welcome victory but was largely a one off event. It appeared to show support for the Progressive Alliance strategy backed by Compass, but polls show less that this was an anti Tory vote than an anti-Brexit vote. Brexit is the defining issue of 2017. In Richmond, an pro Leave Tory was on a loser in a pro Remain constituency. Brexit dominates and this affects the Progressive Alliance strategy. The defining issue is not Tory V Anti Tory, but Leave V Remain. The country remains split and this is the factor that determines the political agenda.

In Richmond I would have voted Lib Dem, to defeat a Tory-UKIP backed candidate. Tim Fallon claimed the Lib Dems are back, but there are a string of Liberal by election victories back to Orpington (1962) which proved false. What it did show was that in strong Remain areas, the Lib Dem Remain stance is popular. But the other side of the coin is that in strong Leave areas both Labour and the Lib Dems – not to mention the Greens – are vulnerable to the UKIP Leave campaign, now joined by the Tories.

UKIP being second in 41 Labour seats, could pose a real challenge in Labour heartlands. And indeed the Tory Party can take Labour voters if they are successful in negotiation and Brexit remains the dominant fact of British political lie. . With a recent poll showing only 15% of Leave voters intending to voter Labour, the issue is stark. For Labour there is a real danger if the Lib Dems soak up pro Remain Labour Voters and UKIP/Tories soak up pro Leave Labour voters, lessening Labour’s core vote.

Labour failed to have by-election strategy in Richmond, linked to its lack of clarity over Brexit. However for the moment its the by election factor that needs attention. Labour can hold the line on its current position for the moment, but only if it manages to hold the Copeland by election in Cumbria. And that puts the Progressive Alliance strategy in the spotlight.

Copeland is Richmond in reverse. In Richmond a strong Remain electorate with the Greens backing the Lib Dems faced a Tory Leave Candidate backed by UKIP, and the Tories lost the seat. In Copeland a narrow Labour majority is threatened by a Leave supporting electorate. Some commentators think the Government could take the seat off the opposition for the first time since 1960. But the reality is less favourable for May, as the Leave vote is split between UKIP and Tory. I take it as read that Labour must seek to win the seat. Anti Corbyn sentiment is ludicrous, revolutionary defeatism does not work – for New Labour or the hard left.. Labour needs to lose the seat like it needs a hole in the head. And it can win, with difficulty, though the stats show the voters are moving to the right.

Elections in Copeland

2010 2015
Lab 19,699 Lab 16,750
Tory 14,186 Tory 14,186
Lib Dem 4,365 UKIP 6,148
BNP 1,474 Lib Dem 1,368
UKIP 994 Green 1,179
Green 389
Turnout % 67.6 63.8

With the BNP collapsed, the result in 2015 mirrored the Referendum vote with a slight majority of the voters in the General Election voting for Leave Parties – as the Tories must now be seen as Leave. Totals on the Big Issue of Britexit are as follows:

Leave Votes Remain Votes
Tory 15,866 Labour 16,750
UKIP 6,148 Lib Dem 1,368
Green 1,179
TOTAL 20,334 19,297

If the Tories can persuade UKIP to stand down and get their voters, with two thirds of the voters on June 23rd voting Leave, the seat is theirs. But UKIP needs to keep the pressure up on May, and the fear of a right wing victory should be worrying Greens and Lib Dems. For the Greens, there is no point in another Lost Deposit.

For Tim Fallon, life is more difficult. If the Lib Dems are serious about opposing Brexit, his party can’t afford a Brexit Victory in Copeland. Yet he is a Cumbria MP. He is trapped between supporting Labour as the Progressive candidate and his Party loyalties. This will be a test case for the Compass supported Progressive Alliance theory.

Only one thing is clear. No one on the Progressive Centre Left gains from UKIP or the Tories winning the Copeland By Election. There is no revolutionary defeatist position, whatever the New Labour Right or Hard Left may think. In Copeland, anything but a Labour win, however narrow the margin, is a major setback.

Trevor Fisher
8th January 2017