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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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.