Labour will listen and learn but Eastleigh was a disaster for David Cameron

It will terrify Cameron that even after making so many concessions to the right, the Tories were still beaten by UKIP.

No one who saw the scrum of photographers surrounding the Tories' defeated Eastleigh candidate Maria Hutchings, could have been in any doubt about how significant a catastrophe Thursday's by-election defeat was for David Cameron. In assessing the significance and cause of the Conservatives' demise it's worth reminding ourselves of the lessons that emerge from this election and what it means for One Nation Labour.

The Eastleigh by-election was a tough fight for the dedicated Labour activists who worked so hard over the past three weeks for John O'Farrell. Any by-election in which you start in third is a tough ask, particularly when it's your 258th target seat. This was a very different seat from Corby, where we captured a key marginal from the Conservatives. John O'Farrell fought the odds in an excellent campaign and his result bears comparison with by-elections past. I want to thank everybody who made the trip to deepest Hampshire to help him. It says much about the enthusiasm for John's candidacy and Ed Miliband's One Nation message that people came from across Britain (and particularly the south east) to support the campaign.

The real story of yesterday's result, however, is the failure of David Cameron's Conservatives. The conditions could not have been more favourable for them to beat the Lib Dems - this was their 16th most winnable Liberal Democrat seat. The by-election was triggered by Chris Huhne standing down in disgrace after pleading guilty to a criminal offence. Coming third behind the Liberal Democrats and UKIP was clearly a disaster for the Conservatives and their hopes at the next general election in 2015.

This by-election was a test of Cameron's judgement and on that count he failed. It will terrify him that, after making so many concessions to those on the right of his party by offering an EU referendum, a campaign focused on immigration and a candidate who - horribly exposed under the scrutiny of a by-election - wanted to leave the EU and opposed same sex marriage, he was still beaten into third place by UKIP. In the battle on the ground, the small band of Conservative foot soldiers appeared out of touch with voters on issues like living standards and fairness.

However, whilst our result stands favourable comparison with many by-elections of the past in seats where parties have started as long shots, this result shows that we need to redouble our efforts to reach out to every part of the country, including areas where Labour hasn't traditionally been strong.

Labour listened to voters on the doorstep, and we will learn from what they told us. All mainstream political parties need to take seriously the concerns people have about the country, whether it is the cost of living, fairness or immigration. Under Ed Miliband's leadership, Labour is determined to meet those concerns.

But we should be in no doubt - this was a disaster for David Cameron. If he can't win a seat like Eastleigh, the Tories will be very worried that he can't win the other seats they need at the next general election in 2015.

Toby Perkins MP was Labour’s campaign manager in Eastleigh

David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street in London on 27 February, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Toby Perkins is Labour MP for Chesterfield and shadow minister for small business

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder