The Peterborough By-Election on Thursday was arguably the perfect territory for the Brexit Party to cause a big political upset.
Surely a seat where the sitting Labour MP was removed by petition after a Criminal conviction and one that voted 60% Leave in 2016 was the big opportunity for the Brexit Party to maintain the momentum they had built up in the Euro Elections a fortnight earlier.
Well perhaps or maybe the result is a reflection of poor expectation management by the Farage’s team – to go from zero to 29% and come a close second is a substantial achievement but it may also be seen as a benchmark of how different his new party is from UKIP in organisational terms.
As I pointed out in my blog (February 2019 about ChangeUK ) the electoral system – first past the post- is unforgiving to new parties. Parties need members and infrastructure ( officers, data, money and election agents for example) and this can take years to build up. There is a high correlation between a strong local government base and winning a Westminster seat.
As Stephen Bush suggests ‘a familiar failing from Nigel Farage’s Ukip days is (sic) they can win proportional contests and (sic) leverage every appearance on television for everything it is worth, but at a constituency level, they simply don’t have the granular knowledge of where their 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 and Middleton. Farage has yet to win a seat without the benefit of defection, and 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.’
So arguably ‘the Jury is out’ on whether the Brexit Party will make the breakthrough it needs. As John Curtice points out ‘Peterborough does not demonstrate that “normal politics” is once again in sight. Rather, it confirms the message of the post-Euro election polls that Britain now has – for the first time ever – as many as four parties jostling for electoral advantage, all with seemingly little more than between a fifth and a quarter of the vote, and none, apparently, with a realistic chance of winning an overall majority,’
A few more by-elections or even an ( increasingly likely) General Election will tell us a lot more.
Turbulent times? Some say we will look back at Theresa May’s time in office with nostalgia in a few years. Certainly, the passage of time will give us perspective but the next 4 to 5 years seem certain to see the break up of the two main parties ( predicted many time before). Then possibly a gradual re-alignment into new parties probably built around the Leave/Remain schism.
There is a pretty wide consensus that Labour and Corbyn had a good conference and presented themselves as a Government in waiting focussed on wider domestic policy. Their nuanced policy of ‘Constructive Ambiguity’ on Brexit looks likely to keep their Coalition of Leave and Remain voters together too.
As the excellent Stephen Bush points out ‘Labour may not have started the culture war but they certainly benefited from it at the last election. Now they essentially want to bring that to an end, bank their gains among social liberals, graduates and the middle classes and win over voters with an economic offer.’
Whilst the Conservatives seemed to have to ditched their reputation as the party of business who would have thought a Labour Shadow Chancellor like John McDonnell would be making a pitch to fill that gap in the market.
It was telling that McDonnell name-checked Gordon Brown and Corbyn did the same for John Prescott some distinct connecting with the days in Government.
This seems a marked contrast with the Conservatives who gather in Birmingham this weekend?
The Conservative increasingly resemble an Opposition Party dominated by the poisoned chalice of implementing Brexit struggling to find a voice or define a vision of how they would tackle the domestic policy challenges that lie ahead. Former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman Robert Halfon called this Conference ‘Make or Break’ have we ever heard that language from a Senior Conservative before.
Its almost an equal and opposite position to Labour and who would have thought that 2 years ago?
Meanwhile, Labour who already advocates many of the features of a ‘Norway+Customs Union‘ style Brexit deal. Its seem they will be firming up their position and for mainly tactical reasons adopting a second referendum or ‘peoples vote’ as policy.
As we know the Liberal Democrats have always advocated an #exitfrombrexit and remaining in the EU.
And so we are now very close to the point where all three UK wide parties have clear positions on Brexit. Up until now the Constructively Ambiguity of Labour on Brexit and the ‘compromises’ of ‘Chequers’ have made the idea of another General Election to settle the issues untenable soon it may not be so and a #PeoplesVote may look like a less attractive way of resolving a constitutional impasse.
That is of course so long as neither Labour nor the Conservatives split!
With the Civil Wars in both Labour and Conservatives now escalating we seem to be in uncharted territory at no time in modern political history have both larger parties been in crisis at the same time.
At the same time, we seem to be seeing a realignment of voters with the Tories becoming a non-metropolitan pro-Brexit party and the Labour Party seeing its support shifting in the opposite direction.
You could argue that Lib Dems are the only ones left standing in their post Coalition (doesn’t that seem longer than 3 years ago !) but their recovery is in its early stages.
So we seem to have a unique situation just about the whole of our Party system is dysfunctional yet our Voting System ( First Past the Post ) makes it hard for the new parties that could emerge from the chaos to succeed at Parliamentary level.
Somethings got to give and its hard to see what yet?