It’s been an interesting week – and a tiring one. I had the privilege over the past few weeks of playing a small part in helping get Andy McDonald elected as Middlesbrough’s Labour MP and it was an enlightening experience in a number of ways, not to mention one that inspired hope. November was a busy month for by-elections, with 3 just this week and three on the 15th – all taken by Labour.
Yet in spite of Labour’s victory in each of the November by-elections, this week at least the news media have focused on UKIP’s results, repeating and dissecting (usually concluding by agreeing with him) Nigel Farage’s claim that his party’s 2nd place in Middlesbrough and Rotherham, and 3rd in Corby, means that UKIP are now the ‘third force’ in British politics.
But is that really the main significance of this week’s results? Let’s take a look – and as I’m a Middlesbrough boy, we’ll start there.
I was able to get a day off on Thursday, and spent 13 hours from 7am first delivering leaflets and then knocking on doors as part of the ‘GOTV’ (Get out the Vote) effort. By the end of the day, my feet and legs were killing me and I was exhausted and frozen. It reinforced what I already knew – that the popular perception that politicians have chosen a cushy life couldn’t be further from the truth in most cases.
I spent a single day campaigning for 13 hours. Andy McDonald did that virtually every day since his selection as Labour’s candidate on 4 November, speaking to thousands of people. I’m full of admiration for his drive, energy and commitment – and that of the many people who came both from the Middlesbrough constituency and from many others to help campaign for him, including many MPs.
Andy is a good bloke, with a passionate heart for the town and for true Labour principles, and I’m absolutely delighted that he’s now representing us in Parliament. His win couldn’t be more deserved. In spite of the low 26% turnout, which is understandable in a cold-weather by-election and in a constituency that has felt neglected by politicians for many years, his 8,211 majority was just a fraction short of Stuart Bell’s majority in the 2010 election – on about half the turnout, so far higher in percentage terms.
UKIP came a very distant second with 1990 votes, with the LibDems 3rd on 1,672 and the Tories 4th on 1,063. If you added all those together, they wouldn’t amount to half of the Labour vote. UKIP beat the LibDems by 318 votes, which is hardly spectacular.
I read the UKIP leaflet I received, and it was a painful experience – aiming for the lowest common denominator by playing on the fears of the poor and the blinkered and pushing a barely-veiled xenophobia. Very few people in Middlesbrough are stupid enough to vote for a right-wing party, but just a few – about 3% of the constituency’s eligible voters – were fooled by a party that’s even more anti-poor and right-wing than the Tories, who played on their fears, resentment and insecurity.
There are always people whose fear will overcome their commonsense – or who just don’t have any in the first place. But most people in Middlesbrough have far more sense than to be fooled.
One thing is certain: the 26% turnout on Thursday was a disappointment, but of those who didn’t come out to vote, and who’d normally vote if it was a general election, almost all of them would have voted Labour. Just as with the recent PCC elections, the Tories need a low turnout so that their voters count more. You can guarantee that the Conservatives, as well as UKIP, will have done everything to mobilise their supporters and that the percentage of Tory and UKIP supporters who voted was far higher than the overall turnout figure of 25.91%. If Andy McDonald could win by over 8,000 on Thursday, his majority in both numerical and percentage terms would have been massively higher.
Winning 2nd place, with less than 2,000 votes, by only 318 more than the LibDems and only 930 more than the fringe Peace Party, isn’t something Nigel Farage should be getting too excited about.
In Rotherham, an unlikely confluence of circumstances led to a more substantial UKIP showing. First, Labour’s Denis McShane left under a cloud because of irregularities with his expenses. Next, Labour’s NEC shortlisted only two candidates and excluded a well-regarded local councillor, which led to a walk-out from the selection hustings by many Labour members and must have impacted on the ensuing campaign.
Finally, just before the election, the local council took foster-children away from two carers because of their membership of UKIP. Given that the children were foreign, and UKIP’s anti-immigrant stance, I can sympathise with the council’s decision, but on balance it was probably ill-judged and certainly ill-timed. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the decision itself, it unquestionably raised UKIP’s profile and gave them an easy ‘hook’ to draw in potential voters.
In spite of this one-off combination of factors, Labour held the seat by a majority of 5,218 on a turnout of 33.6%, compared to McShane’s 2010 majority of 10,462 in 2010 – but about the same proportionally, as turnout in 2010 was just under 60%.
There’s no indication that UKIP were able to dent Labour support in the slightest. UKIP’s vote of 4,648 was up by only 1,686 from their 2010 result, and they seem to have got their support by poaching BNP (down 2,102 compared to 2010) and Conservative (down 5,122) voters. The Conservatives should have got around 3,000 votes based on 2010 figures and relative turnout, but could only muster 1,157.
In Croydon North, UKIP only managed to get 1,400 votes (5.7%) on a turnout almost identical to that in Middlesbrough. Labour’s share of the vote was almost 65%, up from 56% in 2010, while the Tories’ support fell from 24.1% to 16.7%. UKIP’s support was up by about 500 votes – a better showing, certainly, but hardly game-changing. The same truths will apply in Croydon as elsewhere – the Tory and UKIP turnout will have been far higher than that of Labour, as anyone most people prepared to vote for them will have understood that they had to get out to minimise a humiliation (for the Tories) or to take advantage of Tory and LibDem weakness in the case of UKIP.
So, what should we really be learning from the by-election results this month? Here are what I think are the real lessons:
1) The Tories’ are being recognised for the grasping villains they really are
2) People are realising that Labour, for all its flaws, is the only party that wants to do the right thing for the majority and represents a realistic voting option
3) Appealing to the lowest common denominator will only get you so far – and UKIP are prepared to do it, and then to spin the hell out of the result
4) There are a lot of people who are prepared to give their time, energy and effort for a cause if you give them something to believe in – or who are prepared to give you their vote if you show them that you’ll work hard for them and give them a clear picture of what you stand for and what you want to do
Not lessons you’ll hear/read much about in most of the media, but that doesn’t stop them being true.