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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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.