By-elections: a good night for Labour, a very bad one for the Lib Dems

Labour secured comfortable victories in yesterday's three by-elections, while the Lib Dems finished eighth in Rotherham.

Despite fear of another Bradford West-style upset, Labour comfortably won all three of yesterday's by-elections, in Rotherham, Middlesborough and Croydon North, retaining each seat on an increased share of the vote. But the real story of the night was how well UKIP performed and how poorly the Lib Dems did. Aided by the child fostering row, Nigel Farage's party finished second in Rotherham, winning 21.79 per cent of vote, up from 5.9 per cent in 2010 and its best-ever result in a Westminster seat. UKIP also came second in Middlesbrough and third in Croydon North.

By contrast, it was another terrible set of results for the Lib Dems. The party finished eighth in Rotherham (behind the BNP, Respect, the English Democrats and an independent), the worst result any major party has suffered since 1945, and lost its deposit after winning just 2.11 per cent of the vote. It also lost its deposit in Croydon North, where it finished fourth (behind UKIP) and won 3.5 per cent of the vote. The Tories also performed poorly, finishing fifth in Rotherham (behind UKIP, the BNP and Respect), the party's worst performance in any by-election in this parliament, and fourth in Middlesbrough (behind UKIP and the Lib Dems).

Having talked up its chances in Rotherham and Croydon North, Respect didn't come close to threatening Labour. Indeed, in the latter, the party actually lost its deposit after Lee Jasper, Ken Livingstone's former equalities adviser, finished sixth with 2.9 per cent of the vote. Respect performed better in Rotherham, where it fielded Yvonne Ridley, a former journalist who converted to Islam after her capture by the Taliban, and finished fourth with 8.34 per cent.

Given the disadvantages faced by Labour in Rotherham - Denis MacShane's resignation over false invoices, a divided local party, and, most recently, the UKIP fostering row - the party will be pleased that it managed to increase its share of the vote from 44.6 per cent to 46.25 per cent, a swing of 6.5 per cent from the Tories, who finished second in 2010. Few ever expected Labour to lose any of the six by-elections held this month but that the party performed well in each case is firm evidence of its increasing strength.

Sarah Champion, the newly-elected Labour MP for Rotherham. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.