By Mark Buckley
The entire media, the Tory party and the Labour right were gleefully prepared for a Labour defeat in the Peterborough by-election, which they intended to exploit ruthlessly to further undermine Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party.
Instead, they were forced into ridiculous claims, with the BBC opting to proclaim the Brexit party the real winner, echoed by Farage himself, while the Labour right declared that they really had wanted a victory amid spurious claims that the successful Labour was illegitimate.
The real importance of the Labour victory can be gauged by an assessment of what would have happened if the Brexit party had won. It would have been claimed that this shows that voters as a whole are shifting towards Brexit, that Labour cannot win in Leave-voting seats, or that it cannot win on its current ‘soft Brexit’ line.
Crucially, after Trump’s overt intervention in favour of his ‘friend Nigel’, it would have been claimed that voters prioritised achieving a No Deal Brexit over their concerns about the US private sector getting its hands on the NHS. Promoting Hard Brexit leaders like Johnson and Farage is a key part of the Trump strategy. Trump and the Hard Brexiteers oppose Labour’s consistent policy of being in favour of a customs union, because that would rule out the trade deal with the US which lowers workers’ rights, consumer and environmental protections and facilitates accelerated privatisations of public services, including the NHS.
So the entire anti-Corbyn, pro-Trump/Hard Brexit movement was dealt a blow by the victory in Peterborough. It should also be remembered that Labour achieved this win in a by-election forced by the jailing and recall of its previous MP, which is normally guaranteed to shed significant support.
Far from being a defeat for Corbyn, and despite the fact that Labour did haemorrhage votes, it was the Tories who suffered a disaster. Labour shed 17% of the vote, a third of its total share from the 2017 general election. But the Tories lost more than half of their vote, down 25% to 21%. The continued existence of the Brexit party as a significant force is potentially fatal to Tory electoral prospects. Even if the Brexit party achieved half of its Peterborough vote of 29% across the country in a general election, the Tories could lose hundreds of seats.
In fact, Peterborough confirms yet again that Labour can and does win in constituencies which voted heavily for Leave as well as for Remain, just as they did in 2017. As this also applies to a lesser extent to the Tory vote, it should be clear that a large proportion of voters vote on who they want to be Prime Minister.
The pro-Brexit forces did not win the election, but Hard Brexit forces are gaining within that bloc, which reproduces the national trends from the European elections. Taking the pro-Brexit parties together Brexit/Tories/UKIP their combined vote rose by 5%. But the combined vote of the Remain parties LDs/Green rose by 10%. Given that these totals together approximately account for the fall Labour’s vote, down 17%, it is clear Labour lost approximately 2 votes to Remain parties for every 1 vote it lost to pro-Brexit parties. The soft Brexit/Remain bloc is also becoming increasing Remain.
This says very little about the potential outcome of any new referendum. But it contradicts the notion that the tide of opinion is moving in favour of No Deal/Hard Brexit. Instead, opinion as a whole is shifting towards soft Brexit/Remain.
This is important most of all in relation to prospects for Jeremy Corbyn becoming Prime Minister. Under his leadership, Labour can and does win in constituencies which voted Leave, as well as Remain. Labour’s coalition needs to be maintained. But preparing for government means Labour must staunch its losses, which are mainly going to Remain parties as voters shift more in that direction.