A very bad night for the Lib Dems in Scotland

The Lib Dems lose their deposit after winning just 2.2 per cent of the vote in the Inverclyde by-ele

Despite talk of the SNP pulling off a shock defeat, Labour was always likely to win last night's Inverclyde by-election. In the end, the party's margin of victory - 5,838 votes - was greater than many activists expected, and Ed Miliband can celebrate his fourth consecutive by-election win this morning.

The SNP, who came within 511 votes of capturing the sister seat in last month's Scottish Parliament elections, were hopeful of victory but Labour's majority of 14,416 proved too great to overturn. It's further evidence that while Alex Salmond has established the SNP as the natural party of devolved government, Labour is still the party of choice in Westminster elections.

The other noteworthy thing about last night was the disastrous performance of the Lib Dems. Their share of the vote plummeted from 13.3 per cent to 2.2 per cent, losing the party its deposit, and they were pushed into fourth place by the Tories. Sophie Bridger, the Lib Dem candidate, won just 627 votes on a respectable turnout of 45.4 per cent, only 339 more than the Ukip candidate, Mitch Sorbie.

The recriminations have already begun, with the Scottish party attributing its defeat to Nick Clegg's toxic reputation. As the former MSP Ross Finney commented: "There were clear issues of trust in the leadership". Expect to see the Scottish Lib Dems do even more to differentiate themselves from the national leadership over the coming months.

The result in full

Iain McKenzie (Lab) 15,118 (53.8%, -2.2%)

Anne McLaughlin (SNP) 9.280 (33%, +15.5%)

David Wilson (Con) 2,784 (9.9%, -2.1%)

Sophie Bridger (LD) 627 (2.2%, -11.1%)

Mitch Sorbie (UKIP) 288 (1%, -0.2%)

Labour majority: 5,838 (20.8%, -17.6%)

Turnout: 28,097 (45.4%, -18%)

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Leader: The divisions within Labour

Labour’s divisions have rendered it unfit for government at a moment of profound political change.

Labour is a party torn between its parliamentary and activist wings. Since Jeremy Corbyn, who this week appealed desperately for unity, was re-elected by a landslide last September, Labour has become the first opposition in 35 years to lose a ­by-election to the governing party and has continually trailed the Conservatives by a double-digit margin. Yet polling suggests that, were Mr Corbyn’s leadership challenged again, he would win by a comfortable margin. Meanwhile, many of the party’s most gifted and experienced MPs refuse to serve on the front bench. In 2015 Mr Corbyn made the leadership ballot only with the aid of political opponents such as Margaret Beckett and Frank Field. Of the 36 MPs who nominated him, just 15 went on to vote for him.

Having hugely underestimated the strength of the Labour left once, the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) will not do so again. In the contest that will follow Mr Corbyn’s eventual departure, the centrists could lock out potential successors such as the shadow business secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey. Under Labour’s current rules, candidates require support from at least 15 per cent of the party’s MPs and MEPs.

This conundrum explains the attempt by Mr Corbyn’s supporters to reduce the threshold to 5 per cent. The “McDonnell amendment” (named after the shadow chancellor, who failed to make the ballot in 2007 and 2010) is being championed by the Bennite Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and Jon Lansman of Momentum, who is interviewed by Tanya Gold on page 34. “For 20 years the left was denied a voice,” he tweeted to the party’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, on 19 March. “We will deny a voice to no one. We face big challenges, and we need our mass membership to win again.”

The passage of the amendment at this year’s Labour conference would aid Mr Lansman’s decades-long quest to bring the party under the full control of activists. MPs have already lost the third of the vote they held under the electoral college system. They face losing what little influence they retain.

No Labour leader has received less support from his MPs than Mr Corbyn. However, the amendment would enable the election of an even more unpopular figure. For this reason, it should be resolutely opposed. One should respect the motivation of the members and activists, yet Labour must remain a party capable of appealing to a majority of people, a party that is capable of winning elections.

Since it was founded, Labour has been an explicitly parliamentary party. As Clause One of its constitution states: “[The party’s] purpose is to organise and maintain in Parliament and in the country a political Labour Party.” The absurdity of a leader opposed by as much as 95 per cent of his own MPs is incompatible with this mission. Those who do not enjoy the backing of their parliamentary colleagues will struggle to persuade the voters that they deserve their support.

Labour’s divisions have rendered it unfit for government at a moment of profound political change. Rather than formalising this split, the party needs to overcome it – or prepare for one of the greatest defeats in its history.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution