Why John O'Farrell is a smart choice for Labour in Eastleigh

In danger of being ignored as the coalition parties slug it out, the decision to select the author and broadcaster as its candidate means Labour will now enjoy significant media coverage.

Labour's decision to select John O'Farrell as its candidate in the Eastleigh by-election is being hailed by many commentators as a game-changer. It's worth noting, however, that while there is much affection in Westminster for the author and brodcaster (best known for his 1998 book Things Can Only Get Better: Eighteen Miserable Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter), it would be surprising if more than five per cent of voters in the constituency have heard of him.

This said, not only will O'Farrell's humour and warmth endear him to voters ("There is a great deal of hard work ahead. But first I am going to the pub", he tweeted last night), his decision to stand means that Labour, which was in danger of being ignored as the coalition parties slugged it out, will now receive far more local and national media coverage. With the polls as tight as they are (the first survey by Lord Ashcroft gave the Tories a three-point lead, the second by Survation gave the Lib Dems a three-point lead), a stronger-than-expected Labour performance could gift the seat to Conservative candidate Maria Hutchings. But having declared itself to be the party of "one nation" and having vowed to win over voters in the south, Labour has no choice but to campaign hard. Were it to finish in fourth place behind UKIP, as one poll suggested was possible, it would be a disastrous result for Ed Miliband.

Since this is a by-election, Labour has no incentive to tacitly advise its supporters to vote Lib Dem (as Ed Balls and Peter Hain did in 2010) but a slim Tory victory would be a reminder, as I noted last week, that tactical voting will be an issue at the next general election. The Conservatives are in second place in 38 of the Lib Dems' 57 seats and half of their 40 target seats are held by Clegg's party. If Labour wants to prevent the Tories decapitating scores of Lib Dems, it will need to think carefully about how it approaches these contests.

 

Author and broadcaster John O'Farrell was selected as Labour's candidate for the Eastleigh by-election last night.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Labour's trajectory points to landslide defeat, but don't bet on a change at the top any time soon

The settled will among Jeremy Corbyn's critics that they need to keep quiet is unlikely to be disrupted by the result. 

Labour were able to tread water against Ukip in Stoke but sank beneath the waves in Copeland, where the Conservatives’ Trudy Harrison won the seat.

In Stoke, a two-point swing away from Labour to the Tories and to Ukip, which if replicated across the country at a general election would mean 15 Conservative gains and would give Theresa May a parliamentary majority of 40.

And in Copeland, a 6.7 per cent swing for Labour to Tory that would see the Conservatives pick up 52 seats from Labour if replicated across the country, giving them a majority of 114.
As the usual trend is for the opposition to decline from its midterm position at a general election, these are not results that indicate Labour will be back in power after the next election.. That holds for Stoke as much as for Copeland.

The last time a governing party won a by-election was 1982 – the overture to a landslide victory. It’s the biggest by-election increase in the vote share of a governing party since 1966 – the prelude to an election in which Harold Wilson increased his majority from 4 to 96.

To put the length of Labour’s dominance in Copeland into perspective: the new Conservative MP was born in 1976. The last Conservative to sit for Copeland, William Nunn, was born in 1879.

It’s a chastening set of results for Ukip, too. The question for them: if they can’t win when Labour is in such difficulties, when will they?

It’s worth noting, too, that whereas in the last parliament, Labour consistently underperformed its poll rating in local elections and by-elections, indicating that the polls were wrong, so far, the results have been in keeping with what the polls suggest. They are understating the Liberal Democrats a little, which is what you’d expect at this stage in the parliament. So anyone looking for comfort in the idea that the polls will be wrong again is going to look a long time. 

Instead, every election and every poll – including the two council elections last night – point in the same direction: the Conservatives have fixed their Ukip problem but acquired a Liberal Democrat one. Labour haven’t fixed their Ukip problem but they’ve acquired a Liberal Democrat one to match.

But that’s just the electoral reality. What about the struggle for political control inside the Labour party?

As I note in my column this week, the settled view of the bulk of Corbyn’s internal critics is that they need to keep quiet and carry on, to let Corbyn fail on its his own terms. That Labour won Stoke but lost Copeland means that consensus is likely to hold.

The group to watch are Labour MPs in what you might call “the 5000 club” – that is, MPs with majorities around the 5000 mark. An outbreak of panic in that group would mean that we were once again on course for a possible leadership bid.

But they will reassure themselves that this result suggests that their interests are better served by keeping quiet at Westminster and pointing at potholes in their constituencies.  After all, Corbyn doesn’t have a long history of opposition to the major employer in their seats.

The other thing to watch from last night: the well-advertised difficulties of the local hospital in West Cumberland were an inadequate defence for Labour in Copeland. Distrust with Labour in the nuclear industry may mean a bigger turnout than we expect from workers in the nuclear industries in the battle to lead Unite, with all the consequences that has for Labour’s future direction.

If you are marking a date in your diary for another eruption of public in-fighting, don’t forget the suggestion from John McDonnell and Diane Abbott that the polls will have turned by the end of the year – because you can be certain that Corbyn’s critics haven’t. But if you are betting on any party leader to lose his job anytime soon, put it on Nuttall, not Corbyn.

 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.