London calling the shots

London Labour has been buoyed by election results thought impossible a year ago.

So, the one definite thing in what happens next is that Gordon Brown won't be a part of Labour's future.

The other certainty is the release of the grip that Scottish politicos have had over the Labour Party -- and British politics by default.

Power fills a vacuum, and that hole has already been filled by Labour London, which has created a formidable fighting machine and is buoyed by election results thought impossible a year ago. It is the kingmaker that will decide if David Miliband will take over.

The political map of the capital now has a solid core of red. It controls eight more Labour councils, having gained more than 180 councillors. Westminster seats were secured despite Ashcroft cash; the party held Hammersmith -- home of the Conservative easyCouncil project -- plus Westminster North and Tooting. And it won the marginals of Harrow North and Enfield.

The BNP and Respect were seen off by what Tessa Jowell called "highly targeted campaigns", run by disciplined and focused teams which get the job done with little fuss.

And now the area organisers are looking for both blood and payback. Labour central had already been told that Brown was no longer an asset. "This makes it easier to put the knives in," was the reaction by one activist to the PM's statement.

What is not generally known is that a team within London Labour -- including senior MPs from the capital -- had quietly opened negotiations with the Liberal Democrats over power-sharing months ahead of the election to lay the groundwork for a deal.

Ed Balls is out of favour (too close to Brown), but David Miliband cannot take support as a given: London members long ago tired of being taken advantage of.

The local party's intense focus is now on the city's mayoral race, which it believes is for the taking with a decent "non-Ken" candidate.

"Oona [King] is a possible, but she's got a life outside politics and needs some convincing," said one Hackney activist.

London Labour is confident it can turn a possible bid by Boris Johnson for David Cameron's job into a chicken run -- and the Tories are seriously worried by the Labour turnout.

One Tower Hamlets member reflected on Winston Churchill's wartime coalition as its 60th anniversary fell this week: "This is not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning. We're just getting started; it's time one or two in the party sat up and took notice."

Chris Smith is news editor for the MJ and a former lobby correspondent. A specialist on UK government at all levels, he has written for the Guardian, the Times, Sunday Times, the Channel 4 News election FactCheck, Auto Express, HSJ and ePolitix.com.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.