Labour beats Brexit Party to win Peterborough by-election

The Farage roadshow leaves Peterborough with a collection of glowing press clippings and a silver medal, as in several other by-elections.

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Labour has won the Peterborough by-election, finishing just 700 votes ahead of the Brexit Party. Scores on the door:

Lisa Forbes (Labour Party) – 31 per cent (-17 per cent)

Mike Green (Brexit Party) – 29 per cent (+29 per cent)

Paul Bristow (Conservative Party) – 21 per cent (-25 per cent)

Beki Sellick (Liberal Democrat) – 12 per cent (+9 per cent)

Joseph Wells (Green Party) – 3 per cent (+1 per cent)

A win for Labour and a major triumph for Labour’s organisation and technical knowhow. The party has known since Fiona Onasanya's trial began that it would need to fight and win this election, and it used the time to go out, find its vote and mobilise it on the day – thanks to the injection of more than 500 activists on the day itself, and Momentum-organised carpools to get their activists to Peterborough from around the country.

For the Brexit Party, it suggests a familiar failing from Nigel Farage’s Ukip days: it can win proportional contests and it will leverage every appearance on television for everything it is worth, but at a constituency level, it simply doesn’t have the granular knowledge of where its vote is to find it.  

The Farage roadshow leaves Peterborough with a collection of glowing press clippings and a silver medal, just like he left the by-elections in Eastleigh, and Newark, and Heywood & Middleton. Farage has yet to win a seat without the benefit of defection, and in both of those cases, Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless took a substantial chunk of their local Conservative party with them, which significantly helped to boost the ground campaign of his party.

What does it all mean? It suggests that the pattern across the polls  – of four parties all polling around a quarter of the vote – is broadly accurate, at least at the moment. Add that to our antiquated electoral system and you have a recipe for intense unpredictability. Jeremy Corbyn could well end up equalling Tony Blair's share of the seats with Gordon Brown’s share of the vote, but he could just as easily end up in a far worse position than the one he has now.

That the Liberal Democrats were able to get 12 per cent of the vote in highly unfavourable territory – they couldn't make significant inroads in Peterborough, even during the heights of Cleggmania or the aftermath of the Iraq war – suggests that, if the recall petition in Brecon & Radnorshire is successful, you'd have to be very, very brave  to bet on anything other than a Liberal win.

As far as the Conservative leadership race goes, it will confirm in the minds of nervous MPs in marginal seats that the Brexit Party is an existential threat, and they need to reach for the button marked Boris Johnson to get them out of the hole.

What about Labour? As far as the argument over their Brexit policy goes, you can make whatever case you want from it. The likes of Ruth Smeeth, Gareth Snell, Melanie Onn and Gloria DePiero will point to that very narrow win over the Brexit Party  and will say, well, look, I'm not going to get more than 450 activists in my seat before 11 am in a general election, am I? To court a second referendum is to court political destruction.

But the far larger group of Labour MPs where their constituencies have flirted, or in some cases actually run off with, the Liberal Democrats in the past will look at that 12.5 per cent and become increasingly worried about what an election on a pro-Brexit platform means for their seats.

Labour's committed Remainers and Brexiteers will continue to be united in believing that Labour must “just do the right thing”: they just won't be able to agree on what the right thing is.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.