Labour's somewhat hollow triumph

Successes built on low turnout are castles made of sand.

Thursday was a great day for Labour activists across the country, bringing about results which meant one of the most enjoyable election nights in years. Within moments of the polls closing, the Tories very own in-house omnishambles, Sayeeda Warsi, was dispatched to TV studios to tell the nation that Labour needed 700 council gains to be able to call the night a success. Later she tried to increase the number to 1000 - a figure that was nigh on impossible to achieve. 

That early attempt to move the goalposts was telling. Few Labour people seriously thought that 700 gains was achievable, but the Tories evidently did once they saw their vote collapsing on election day. In areas where Labour needs to win in 2015 (Thurrock, Norwich, Harlow, Basildon, Reading, Southampton, Plymouth) the results were overwhelmingly positive. But the gains weren't just confined to the south - in the north west, Labour took Wirral, and wrestled Sefton from No Overall Control for the first time since 1986. In Sheffield, Leeds and Wakefield (to name just a few) huge chunks of the available seats fell to Labour.

And then Glasgow. We were never meant to win. Privately some senior Labour people had begun to concede it more than a week before election day, with the SNP tidal wave engulfing another Labour stronghold. But this time it was the final one. If Glasgow went SNP, the independence drumbeat would have intensified. As it is, Labour has shown that it can beat the SNP, with organisation, fresh candidates and an acknowledgement that the party has changed. Their result was remarkable - to paraphrase a much mocked Ed Miliband speech - the fightback in Scotland starts here.

And I still haven't even mentioned Labour's fantastic results in Wales, picking up Cardiff to strengthen the party's Cymru hegemony.

So Labour retained Scotland's biggest city and won the Welsh capital, but the same can't be said in England, where of course Labour lost the London Mayoral election. I've discussed why I think Ken lost already, but even here a certain defeat that the polls thought would be huge turned into a late night semi-squeaker for the Tories - with some on team Boris seemingly thinking that Boris had lost. That was a testament to the campaign's focus on the ground game, and the determination of Labour activists - both repaid by the election of 12 London Assembly members, and the ousting of Tories like the odious Brian Coleman.

But what cost Livingstone the election - at least numerically, rather than politically - was turnout, and the positive election results throughout the country don't mask the sapping effect that low turnout has on our democracy. Politically, neither party has yet been able to sufficiently enthuse the electorate enough to get past the "you're all the same" factor. Yet Ed Miliband appeared to realise the potency of this existential threat to party politics, when even after such strong results he talked of those who didn't vote at all.

The other side of the low turnout coin is cultural and organisational. As Karin Christiansen rightly pointed out on Friday, "Low turn-out is a problem in general. Both we and the Tories are stuck in low turn-out election strategies, with a race to the bottom: whose vote gets suppressed least wins." Does that sound like the kind of politics you want to be involved with? I know I certainly don't. But that kind of culture pervades all parties now - and is the context in which backlashes like Bradford West should be viewed. 

Recently a party member in a traditionally safe Labour area told me their local organiser "loved low turnout elections" and that the same organiser had told them Labour's aim in elections was "to discourage and demoralise our opponents' supporters from turning out while reminding enough of our voters to do so." It's a style of politics that seeks to drive up apathy. 

Is it any wonder that one of the most commonly heard replies on the doorstep is "you're all the same"?

Getting past that apathy is the real challenge for Labour and Miliband - putting down roots in areas that make Labour support more secure and long term, precisely because the party is in touch with the electorate, campaigning with them rather than just at them, and speaking to them on their terms. Only by making such a shift in the way the party campaigns can Labour stop the race to the bottom and help restore the nations's faith in politics and the ability of the left to change the country.

The alternative is more potentially hollow victories like this week. They may augur well for the future - but just as plausibly the success may be fleeting. Successes built on low turnout are castles made of sand - and unless we act soon, the rising tide of public discontent will wash us all away.

Mark Ferguson is the editor of Labour List.

Glasgow, the fightback in Scotland starts here. Photograph: Getty Images.
Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.