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

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle