Ealing comedy?

Mark Pack enjoys the ins and out of the battle in Ealing Southall

It's rather appropriate that a by-election in Ealing, home of Ealing comedies, has been the site of a by-election that has frequently seemed on the edge of farce.

For the wider world, of course, perhaps the height of farce was the sight of the Tory candidate Tony Lit beaming with Tony Blair at a Labour event where a cheque for £4,800 was handed over (and a further auction bid of £4,000 was made) just before he became the Tory candidate (Mr Lit that is, not Mr Blair!). This story does at least mean that - thankfully, at last - we have a story to top the Liberal Democrat embarrassment from the 1990s of having a Parliamentary by-election candidate join Labour on polling day itself.

For political insiders, the arguments over Iain Dale's blog and whether he is letting himself be used as a largely uncritical mouthpiece by the Conservative Party have eaten up much blogging time.

An example of this was the attempt by the Conservatives to use Iain's blog to criticise the use of photographs by the Liberal Democrats. The attacks were rather blunted by the fact that on the very same day that Iain hit "publish" on the story on his blog, the Conservatives in Ealing were delivering a leaflet that did the very same thing that his story fulminated against.

As did - amongst others - previous Conservative Parliamentary by-election leaflets in Cheadle and Leicester South and ... wait for it ... a story Iain had penned on his very own blog a few days previously.

But what will it all mean when the voters are counted and tempers have settled? The downside of making predictions just ahead of polling day is that if you're wrong you look a fool, and if you're right - well, who really cares anyway given they've now got the actually results to pore over?

But as I volunteered for the task ... the projection from our weekend work made by Chris Rennard is that the state of parties was around Labour 37%, Lib Dem 31% and Conservative 22%. As he said, "From this position Lib Dems can win but it should be close. I believe that we could be into re-count territory on Thursday night."

Interestingly, he chose to make public these views in a comment on a blog, rather than to a journalists, which reflects the way the internet has been changing how politics works.

Given the eagerness of some politicians to write-up a "return to two party politics" story, for Nigel Bakhai and the Liberal Democrats to come even close to winning a seat off Labour, in the teeth of a determined Cameron New Conservative onslaught to boot, will be some achievement. An achievement all the greater of course if Nigel Bakhai wins.

As the first major electoral test for Gordon Brown, Ealing (and Sedgefield) are likely to be useful indicators as to how firmly rooted the "Brown bounce" in the opinion polls really is. Can intensive local campaigning by the Liberal Democrats still eat heavily into Labour's vote as happened in many places in 2005? And how well with the Conservative campaign message of "David Cameron wants this man to be your MP" go down?

All will be revealed shortly. As to my own personal prediction in the meantime? Well, working for a political party I find it generally safest to stick to keeping it a secret between me and my bookmaker.

Mark Pack is the Head of Innovations for the Lib Dems. He previously worked in their Campaigns & Elections Department for seven years.
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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the gathering was remarkably fractious (PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatened to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, emphasised that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question. She said she would listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and would soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible that with improving technology large submarines could easily be tracked and detected and attacked by drones. She said so it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

But former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained that she had failed to understand how the UK's nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it was "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year, the battle is on to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.