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The Sleaford and North Hykeham by-election shows Labour has more than Ukip to fear

The party has a Liberal Democrat problem as well. 

Brexit giveth, and Brexit taketh away. The Conservatives have won a thumping victory in the Sleaford and North Hykeham by-election. The numbers that matter:

  • Caroline Johnson (Conservative)  53.5%
  • Victoria Ayling (Ukip) 13.5%
  • Ross Pepper (Liberal Democrat) 11%
  • Jim Clarke (Labour) 10.2%

It's one of the Tory party's best by-election performances while in government - their vote share still above 50 per cent and miles ahead of their nearest competitors. What will make the victory even sweeter is what's happened to the Labour vote - a seven point fall in their share of the vote, and a collapse from second place to fourth. 

But for all the hype around Paul Nuttall and how he was set to transform Ukip into a Labour-killer, that party's vote share is down too - it's only the collapse in Labour's vote that has allowed them to take second, rather than any great uptick in that party's fortunes. 

The only party with anything to cheer about - other than the Conservatives - are the Liberal Democrats, continuing their post-referendum pattern of astonishing revival. What many seem to have misunderstood: even in places like Hykeham, which backed Brexit by a heavy margin, the Remain vote is significantly larger than the Liberal one. If they can hold onto to their 2015 vote and add Remain votes from Tory and Labour, they can hope for real gains at the next election. (Of particular significance - in the South West, the Labour and Green vote they need to take back seats from the Conservatives, tends to have voted Remain on 23 June.)

What's increasingly clear: the further anti-immigration turn of Theresa May's government has fixed the Conservatives' Ukip problem, but they've acquired a Liberal Democrat one.  Labour, meanwhile, hasn't fixed its Ukip problem and now as a Liberal Democrat one to match. 

Blairites used to worry that Ed Miliband was pursuing a 35 per cent strategy (the Labour vote in 2010 topped up with disgruntled Liberal Democrats). It's fairly clear that Theresa May has decided to pitch her tent towards the 52 per cent who voted Leave, while Tim Farron is going for the 48 per cent who decided to Remain. What Labour wants is to talk about their plans to fix the British economy and negotiate a better Brexit than the Conservatives can. That has the advantage of not putting further pressure on the splits in the parliamentary Labour party and the divide in the party's electoral coalition. The real risk, however, is what they've ended up with is a zero per cent strategy.

Downing Street has disavowed remarks made by Boris Johnson, this time about the Middle East. The Foreign Secretary said Saudi Arabia was "twisting and abusing" Islam and acting as a "puppeteer" in the region. It's a further rift between Downing Street and the FCO. "Saudi row wides Boris rift with May" is the Telegraph's splash.


Greg Hands and Mark Field have been tasked with secretly wooing other centre-right parties and MEPs ahead of Brexit talks, the FT reveals.


Jon Lansman has vowed to stay and fight for the future Momentum, the pro-Corbyn organisation he founded, which has split into open division over its rules and structures. Rajeev Syal has the details in the Guardian.


Children from families that are "just about managing" (earning £18-21k a year) are significantly less likely to gain entrance to a grammar school than their wealthier peers, a new report by the Sutton Trust has found. Julia has the details.


Dave Penman, the general secretary of the FDA, a civil service union, has chastised Theresa May for criticising civil servants in a recent interview, saying that "few definitions of leadership include criticising your overworked and underpaid staff".


Amelia finds out what it's like to share a name with a hate figure online.


This year's NS Christmas charity is Lumos. JK Rowling, its founder and the author of the Harry Potter books, talks about its work with Eddie Redmayne here. If you can, please donate here.


Angela Merkel's burqa ban is sexist, racist and wrong says Laurie

Brendan Simms on how Donald Trump could spell doom for the UK

This originally appeared in today's Morning Call: get it in your inboxes Monday through Friday - sign up here.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.