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After Eastleigh: Labour

03/03/2013

After Eastleigh – TOC

1. The LibDems
2. UKIP
3. The Conservatives
4. Labour

Did Labour have a bad night or a good night? Their vote share held up, in fact it increased (albeit by 0.22%), giving them the best overall performance of the Big 3. Not bad in a seat where they had no real infrastructure or organisation. If the swings in Eastleigh were repeated across the country, Labour would end up with a majority fairly close to the one they scored in 2005. There ends the case for the defence.

The case for the prosecution is far more damning: they were third in 2010; they came fourth in 2013. Not only did they fail to convince LibDem voters to move to Labour, they actually lost a thousand votes. In a seat where they apparently haven’t had any organisation in place since the last By-Election in 1994, Labour still achieved over 10,000 votes consistently from them until 2005 – more than one vote in five was for Labour. This time, they couldn’t even manage 5,000 votes or one vote in ten. John O’Farrell tried to frame the contest as a two-horse race between the Coalition parties and Labour. In his own narrative, he still came third.

There, once again, is Labour’s problem. It’s what got them humiliated in Scotland in 2011. It’s what cost them Bradford East in 2012. It’s still hurting them in 2013. Don’t they get it yet? It is not enough, and it will never be enough, simply to not be the Coalition. UKIP aren’t the Coalition. Respect aren’t the Coalition. The SNP aren’t the Coalition. The Greens aren’t the Coalition. And so on. We know what Labour is against, but with just a little over two years left of this Parliament, we are no closer to working out what Labour is for.

And it flies in the face of Labour’s latest buzz-phrase: One Nation. Where is ‘One Nation’ evident in Chuka Umunna shrugging his shoulders and saying that if Labour won Eastleigh in a General Election they’d have a majority of 350 seats? Where is ‘One Nation’ evident in there needing to be a By-Election for Labour to get organised? With the LibDems getting pummelled in local elections for the past two years, with Labour being the main beneficiaries of that, and with the party still as recently as eight years ago being to enjoy five-figure polls and a 20% vote share in a seat where you would expect tactical voting to have been the order of the day, why weren’t they in there, getting a toehold on the Council?

What is Labour’s plan? To sit there quietly, and win by default? They should be trying to seize the agenda, shape the narrative and build momentum. They aren’t doing that. And it’s UKIP who benefit from Labour’s complacent inertia.
The party enjoys, on average, an eleven-point lead in the polls. At the equivalent point in the 1987-1992 Parliament, in early 1990, Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party enjoyed a lead of fifteen points. The Tories won a fourth term in 1992. Tony Blair had a lead of 27 and a half points in early 1995. His lead was reduced to just(!) thirteen points in 1997 – enough for a landslide, but half what he was predicted to get two years earlier. Hell, even Michael Foot had a lead of 10 and a half points in mid-1981, and look what happened to him!

So Labour might have been the only party to increase their vote share, and the swing on display might grant them a 60-seat majority. The polls might give them a lead over the Tories of eleven points and a three-figure majority to go with it. But there is a gap between mid-term polls and the actual result – a gap which could see their lead shrink to three points at most: enough to give Labour a majority of just 22 seats.

If Eastleigh should have taught Labour anything, it’s this: the party needs to stop assuming that the votes will simply come, and start going out to find them. No more shrugging of shoulders. No more musing that a seat isn’t on the target list. No more 20-year organisational vacuums. No more just not being the other guy.

There were surely ten thousand potential Labour voters in Eastleigh, and the party just found four thousand of them. A few more failures on that level, and even that 22-seat majority could look optimistic. Labour could end up handing David Cameron another five years in Downing Street.

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