Conservative defector Mark Reckless speaks at a Ukip public meeting in Rochester. Photograph: Getty Images.
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How Labour plans to counter the Tories' Rochester spin

The party is determined not to allow the Conservatives to make Labour failure the story of Thursday's by-election. 

Having already conceded defeat to Ukip ahead of Thursday's Rochester by-election (the most recent poll put Nigel Farage's party 12 points ahead), the Tories are now focused on damage limitation. They aim to cut Conservative defector Mark Reckless's lead to single digits and to turn attention to the performance of Labour, which is set to finish a distant third. Their hope is that defeat in Rochester is now "priced in" and will fail to trigger the crisis that the opposition wanted. 

In response, Labour is preparing its rebuttal. Expect the party to remind voters just how much David Cameron staked on victory in the seat. The PM vowed to "throw the kitchen sink" at Ukip (kicking Reckless's "fat arse" in the process) with all Conservative MPs ordered to visit at least three times and all cabinet ministers to visit at least five (not all have obliged). The common view among the Tories was that while defeat to the popular Douglas Carswell in the Clacton by-election was inevitable, victory over Reckless was eminently achievable. "Losing is not an option," one government figure declared

With the reverse now the case, the Tories are seeking to present their performance as adequate compared to that of Labour whose vote has fallen from 28.5 per cent in 2010 to 17 per cent. A Conservative source told the Observer: "Our vote is holding up OK. We are at 30 per cent, maybe even 33 per cent. It is not bad. Ukip are in the 40s. But Labour have absolutely capitulated and collapsed in a seat that they held until 2010. There are at least as many questions for Ed Miliband as for us. We are fairly relaxed about the whole thing, as I think it is priced in at this stage."

Labour rejects all of this. As one aide pointed out to me, far from "holding up", the Tories' vote has collapsed from 49 per cent in 2010 to 32 per cent in the most recent poll. "They want to make this about us, it's all about them," he said, deriding "spin to the point of gibberish". Labour sources also point out that it is not true to say the party held the seat until 2010. Had the constituency been fought on its current boundaries in 2005, Bob Marshall-Andrews (who represented the predecessor seat of Medway) would have lost. 

An aide described Rochester as a "landslide victory seat", adding "we know we're not looking at a landslide victory". Despite its well-regarded candidate Naushabah Khan, the party argues that it was inevitable that its vote would be squeezed, with the usual two-horse by-election dynamic magnified by Reckless's high-profile defection. "If we get 10 per cent we'll be doing well", I was told. In response to those who say it should have devoted more resources to the by-election, the party argues that it is focused on the marginal seats it needs to win a majority (and in which it remains ahead). 

But while Labour is determined to define Rochester as a Conservative failure, Cameron's party may not be as unnerved as it hoped. Tory MPs have been reassured by national polls putting them neck-and-neck with the opposition and by a Lord Ashcroft survey showing they would win the seat at a general election. But that the Conservatives are now prepared to tolerate defeat to not one but two Ukip defectors is further evidence of their diminished ambitions. And the fear remains that there could be more to come. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.