How Labour lost the Ukip versus Tory by-election

By having one of its shadow cabinet resign on the night of the vote, Labour snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

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The Labour party, in its current precarious state, was hoping for the harsh Westminster spotlight to be squarely back on David Cameron following the result of the Rochester and Strood by-election. In recent weeks, it had been clear that Ukip would defeat the Tories, and this was shaping up to be a useful story to take media attention off an emerging crisis of confidence in Ed Miliband's leadership.

However, Labour managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory on election night. Emily Thornberry MP resigned her shadow cabinet position as shadow attorney general at around 10.30pm last night due to a tweet she sent in the late afternoon of a house bearing St George's flags with a white van parked outside. An act that was thought to represent everything that is wrong with Labour and its out-of-touch liberal elite smirking at parochial patriotism.

But the party's downward spiral into the top of the news cycle didn't begin with Emily Thornberry's tweet, ill-advised and crass though it was. It began when Ed Miliband's office kicked in. His team was hastily briefing journalists that they'd never seen Ed Miliband so angry, and that he had furiously given Thornberry a piece of his mind. But this wasn't enough of a message. It came to light that Thornberry's position was no longer tenable, and she resigned.

There are two reasons why the leadership reacted like this. First was that it wanted to contain the story. It didn't want a Maria Miller-type affair where it would last for weeks and weeks, and also, the "White Van Man" has been speaking to a lot of journalists, and the Sun's splash today is the "Snob Labour MP's Twitter Dig". Miliband's office was spooked by this coverage widening the story out from social media and onto people's doormats, and decided to take the sting out of it by having Thornberry resign. However, this doesn't work: the Sun's story is already written, its frontpage already out, so it's too late if it's just the frontpages that are bothering them. Also, her resignation gave the media, who were preparing for a long wait with not much to do until the by-election result, something to get its teeth into, fanning the flames.

The second reason the party reacted this way is because it is a story that touches an already rather sore nerve regarding Labour's core. Mainly due to the sudden need to "talk about immigration", it is being pulled in two directions by its "beer drinkers" and "wine drinkers". This is an ideological problem that will only become more acute as the party approaches the election and attempts to stymie the flow of its traditional voters to Ukip, which will not be solved by one shadow cabinet minister's resignation. It will be much, much harder to solve than that.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

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