Heywood & Middleton: banging on about the NHS is not enough for Labour

There were two parliamentary by-elections in England last night. At Clacton Tory defector Douglas Carswell was re-elected under the Ukip banner with a massive vote. This is a very striking result, but one that was entirely expected. The Essex seaside town of Clacton has a unique concentration of the older, white blue-collar types that are Ukip’s best hunting ground, and not a few lower middle class older white Tory types that are also tempted to vote for the party. The more thought provoking result was in the other election in the Greater Manchester seat of Heywood & Middleton. Ukip came within a whisker of beating Labour.

The best place to see the result is on Wikipedia. After searching the BBC and the main newspapers, all give snippets and verbiage, but don’t present the result simply and clearly – which says much about the narcissism of modern news reporting. The Labour vote share held at 40%, and even increased by a small fraction, albeit on a reduced turnout. The Conservative and Lib Dem votes collapsed (though both parties retained their deposits, a relief for the latter party); the racist BNP did well in 2010 (7% of the vote) but did not stand this time. Ukip gathered voters from all these sources to move from 2.6% to just over 40%. Given that this was a very short campaign – Labour moved the writ before its former MP’s funeral – this is a very significant achievement.

Labour were taking some comfort from the way their vote share held up, while the Tory and Lib Dem votes fell. This pattern repeated across the country could gift them a number of Tory and Lib Dem seats. We should not be surprised that professional election strategists could take pride in winning a House of Commons majority with one of the worst popular votes in Labour’s history (as 2010’s was) – but what kind of a mandate would that give the party’s leaders? The truth is that Labour’s strategy has gone off the rails. The plan is to hang on to the hard core of voters that the party retained in 2010, and to take about half of the Lib Dem vote. That should have taken them well past 50% in this constituency. For every vote they won back off the Lib Dems (and Tories for that matter), they lost one of their core voters to Ukip. Worse: in seats were the Lib Dems are weaker, for every two votes Labour wins back from that party, another one or more goes to Labour’s main opponents. Labour’s appeal is simply to weak to win.

Labour’s campaign was one-dimensional. They banged on about saving the NHS, which they claim is being sold off to private companies. This seems to resonate with voters, even though its relationship to the truth is weak – and if Labour were in power they would not be able to help much with the NHS’s troubles. Ukip’s policies on the NHS are far from reassuring, so this seemed to be a safe strategy. So Labour did not talk about Ukip’s favoured issue: immigration. This strategy clearly failed. Labour’s core, working class voters clearly want to talk about immigration, and are feeling ignored. But Labour does not know what to say without putting off other voters, such as those from ethnic minorities and liberals, to say nothing of its activists.

The trouble is that Labour is a fragile coalition of people who are united only in their dislike of the Conservatives. As soon as Labour start to become clearer about what their programme for government actually is, the more this coalition will fragment. Worse still, their campaigning is a classic mix of dissembling, lies and the building up of false expectations. This cannot bridge the gap of trust that lies behind the rise of Ukip.

To bridge the trust gap politicians must do things that hurt – that are against the apparent interests of their party and electoral prospects. The Lib Dems seem to understand this, to give them credit – though the public is unlikely to appreciate this until after next May, and their leader, Nick Clegg, has moved on. Some Tories do too – though not their leader, who will seemingly say anything to achieve a short-term advantage. But Labour has no conception of this idea. To them bravery is simply folly.

In the highly unstable mix of British five-way politics (including the SNP), it is entirely possible that Labour will achieve an overall majority. It may turn out to be a victory they regret achieving.

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