Ed Miliband delivers his speech at the Labour conference in Manchester last month. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The by-elections show Labour can be confident of election victory

Our hard-fought victory in Heywood & Middleton stands in stark contrast to the Tories' collapse in Clacton. 

I agree with Grant Shapps: last week's by-elections put Ed Miliband one step closer to No 10. If you read some of the media coverage of the by-elections, you might have been forgiven for thinking that Labour had been beaten in Heywood & Middleton and that the Tories had won in Clacton.

Let's be clear: David Cameron didn't just lose in Clacton - he suffered a humiliating defeat. The Tories fell apart quicker than a Ukip policy announcement. And it wasn't for lack of trying. At least 10 members of the Cabinet went campaigning in Clacton. Just a week after David Cameron confidently predicted "we are taking this election very seriously - we can win this", he got his backside kicked. He lost with the Tories’ biggest drop in share of the vote in any by-election in two decades.

Just as importantly, he lost after he'd played his biggest anti-Ukip cards: his EU referendum pledge; the promise to scrap the Human Rights Act; the unfunded tax cuts (from a man who once said "you can’t talk about tax reduction unless you can show how it is paid for, the public aren’t stupid"); the squeeze on working age benefits for three million working people, whilst keeping his donors happy with his tax cut for millionaires.

For about 48 hours, the ludicrously fawning Tory-supporting media were talking excitedly about Cameron's post-conference polling surge. They've stopped now. The Tories losing Clacton would be like Labour losing a seat like Islwyn, North Durham or Leigh.

Clacton was a political earthquake. The Tory defeat to Ukip in Clacton follows defeats to Labour in the local elections in May in the battleground seats that will decide the general election next year: a list that includes places like Amber Valley, Croydon, Carlisle, Weaver Vale, Lincoln and Ipswich. Also on that list is Crawley, where on Thursday, in an important council by-election which was perhaps overshadowed by events elsewhere, Labour won back a seat from a Conservative councillor who had defected to Ukip.

And contrary to the media myth of equivalent pain for the main parties at the hands of Ukip last Thursday, Labour's result in Heywood & Middleton is actually in contrast with the Tories' result in Clacton. In both seats there was a strong Ukip challenge. But in Clacton, the Tory vote collapsed. In Heywood & Middleton, the Labour vote held firm – in fact, it increased slightly. Ukip increased its vote, but largely at the expense of the Tories and Lib Dems, who went from 50 per cent of the vote between them in 2010 to just 17 per cent between them now.

Our victory has followed a concerted effort by Labour to take Ukip and expose them for what they are: more Tory than the Tories. Like their plans to privatise the NHS, abolish workers' rights, increase bankers' bonuses, cut taxes for millionaires. Their top people are overwhelmingly ex-Tory, from their ex-Tory leader, deputy leader and treasurer; to their two ex-Tory MP defectors; to their Heywood & Middleton candidate who admitted during the campaign that he'd personally voted Tory for many years. And their money comes from ex-Tory donors – in the last quarter almost 90 per cent of their funding came from people who used to bankroll the Conservative Party.

We took this message to the people of Heywood & Middleton, with hard-hitting campaign materials showing the Ukip threat, as well as keeping our focus on saving the NHS and standing up for working people.  The result was closer than we would have liked, but the fact is the Labour vote held firm. In football terms, Heywood and Middleton wasn't pretty but we did take all three points. And teams that win the league sometimes have to scrap for a win.

We know that when it comes to taking Ukip on in Labour areas, we have continued work to do. We have the right arguments and many of the right campaigning materials. But we now need to have the confidence to go out there and take the fight to Ukip wherever they pose a threat.

But the Tory collapse at Ukip's expense tells you something else: David Cameron's party is falling back in the areas where they need to hold firm and then make progress. Before the last election, David Cameron said: "If we can't win in the north west, we can't carry the country". He didn't win in the north west. He fell back badly. Every Tory MP in a marginal constituency in the north west – and there are plenty – will have looked at the result in Heywood & Middleton and shuddered.

So don't believe everything you read from the Conservative-supporting commentariat (or some of the doom-and-gloomers on our own side). Ed Miliband is the eternal warrior against complacency, but we equally we should have confidence. For once, let's all agree with Grant Shapps when he said that the by-election results "put Ed Miliband one step nearer to No 10". For the sake of the country, let's keep working together to make sure he's right.

Michael Dugher is Labour MP for Barnsley East and the former Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

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Is the Great Fire of London a blueprint for how governments deal with disasters?

Visible leadership, an established authority, and a common external enemy: an enduring defence mechanism 350 years on.

In 1968, the science journal The Lancet ran a report into human behaviour. When populations are confronted with disaster, it recommended, effective “communications, coordination, and control, and the establishment of a recognised authority” are of utmost importance (advice that should have been heeded immediately after the Brexit result in June this year).

The 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London this week seems is a good time to think about how we deal with disasters: over 13,000 homes were destroyed, 87 churches ruined and thousands of Londoners displaced.

For me, one of the most striking parts of the story of the Great Fire is not the fire itself nor the dramatic rebuilding programme that followed, but the state of flux in between.

When the fire broke out, England was at war with both the Dutch Republic and France. As soon as news reached France, the Venetian ambassador Alvise Sagredo, declared that the fire would be “worse than the plague and any other disaster, capable of making [the English] change their government and their principles”.

In England, even the London Gazette warned that England’s foes would try “to persuade the world abroad of great parties and disaffection at home against his majesties government”. Faced with unparalleled destruction and unprecedented disarray, how did the king, his advisers and civic authorities regain control of London?

With the Guildhall severely damaged and the Royal Exchange destroyed, the first step was to find a new base for civic and mercantile power. On 6 September, Charles II instructed the Lord Mayor and the city aldermen to resume governance of the city. Gresham College and buildings around Bishopsgate were taken over and efforts were immediately taken to re-establish trade. Vendors were granted permission to set up sheds in temporary markets at Bishopsgate Street, Tower Hill, Smithfield and Leadenhall Street.

“Honest and able persons” were selected to monitor the ruined city to ensure fire did not break out afresh, appeals were made across the country for charitable donations and neighbouring counties were called upon to provide sustenance. From the navy stores, ship’s biscuit was offered to the needy and canvas was provided so that the tens of thousands of homeless people stranded in the fields surrounding London could fashion tents.

The measures were not perfect. Visiting Moorfields, the diarist John Evelyn described, “the poor inhabitants . . . some under tents, some under miserable huts and hovels, many without a rag”.

Those stranded found food to be in short supply and many succumbed to the illnesses bred by a reduced condition in life, including aged playwright James Shirley, who died in October 1666.

But it wasn’t long before people started to disperse – either leaving London altogether, finding accommodation elsewhere, or returning to the locations of their former homes and shops to erect makeshift shacks above the ruins.

In the background, the trial and execution of French watchmaker Robert Hubert, who falsely claimed to have started the fire, provided a focus for any anger and rage.

With communication ruptured following the destruction of the London Gazette printing house and the General Letter Office, rumours of plots, arson and invasions had spread almost as quickly as the fire itself. Indeed, terrible violence had broken out during the fire, with mobs targeting any “strangers” or foreign-born Londoners. One French servant, for example, reported how gangs of “English women did knock down strangers for not speaking good English. Some of them armed with spits, some with bread staffs, and the captain with a broad sword.”

When the London Gazette was released the week after the fire – after only skipping one edition of its biweekly run – it provided readers with a detailed description of the catastrophe, emphasising its accidental nature and promoting the role played by Charles II and his brother and heir, James, Duke of York, in preventing the fire spreading even further.

Against protocol, the newspaper also allowed important tradespeople to advertise their new offices: the goldsmith-bankers, for example, informed readers that they had found premises along Broad Street.

By mid-September, the etcher Wenceslaus Hollar had already begun his survey of the city and plans had been submitted to the king from John Evelyn and architects Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, to name just a few, as to how to rebuild the capital.

Writing at the time, Sir Nathaniel Hobart, believed that the “rebuilding of the Citty will not be soe difficult as the satisfying all interests, there being many proprietors”. As such, one of the most important innovations following the disaster was the establishment of a judiciary, known as the Fire Court, to untangle the complex web of formal and informal agreements between tenants and landlords. From 1667 until 1672 the Fire Court settled hundreds and hundreds of cases.

There were certainly many bumps along the way – for a while, the City of London was plundered and inhabited by gangs. Plus, anger towards foreign-born Londoners continued; owing to his Dutch background, one Johan Vandermarsh had to fight tooth and nail to keep hold of his property on Lime Street, despite helping to save many of his neighbours’ homes.

All of this considered, there was nothing like the widespread disorder that Charles II had feared and his enemies expected. On the contrary, the visibility of the king and his brother and heir – and the convenient suspicion that the fire had been started by an external enemy – worked to bind the people to their king and settle unrest. Although hard to believe at the time, there was also the promise of “a more beautiful city”.

Rebecca Rideal is a historian, factual television producer and author of 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire.

She will be speaking at London’s Burning festival on Friday 2 September – a contemporary festival of art and ideas produced at Artichoke to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London. Free to the public, it runs from 30 August-4 September.