Sleaford and North Hykeham 2016 won’t go down in by-election lore by any means. It certainly lacked the multifaceted drama of Zac Goldsmith’s defeat in Richmond Park last week and ‘Tories hold safe Tory seat’ is not the stuff of headline-writer’s dreams. Almost inevitably therefore, the eye drifts a little further down the table of results to find a story. And, while it is by no means an earth-shattering one, there is enough in Labour’s meagre vote share to get the commentators’ tongues wagging.
Let’s firstly put Labour’s fourth place finish here into context: in and of itself it is hardly the end of the world. Labour was not expected to feature strongly here and did not pour any great resource into trying to force an upset. The seat has been in Tory hands since its creation in 1997 and Labour has never really been close enough for this to be considered a marginal constituency.
In normal times, the party might have been content to write this one off and look forward to the next by-election, perhaps in more promising surroundings. However these are not normal times for the Labour Party. Coming hot on the heels of a lost deposit in Richmond Park last week, and swiftly followed by a YouGov national poll putting the party on just 25% – its lowest share since 2009 – it is clear that these should be highly worrying times for the Labour hierarchy.
Now, again, lets keep some perspective: Richmond Park was another seat not traditionally noted for strong Labour showings. And yes, that’s just one YouGov poll, and we’re all supposed to be taking polls with pinches of salt these days.
The problem with this logic is that it is not really just one poll – since Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election as leader, the party has achieved 30% or above in just three opinion polls out of 18, with a one-off high of 33% from Ipsos Mori in November. And yes, it is true that Labour was never going to win Richmond Park. But is it really acceptable for the main party of opposition to be losing a deposit in a Parliamentary by-election when the Government is in the midst of a period of deep political turmoil?
Ian Jones of the Press Association points out that both Sleaford and Richmond Park are in the bottom 10 results achieved out of 62 Parliamentary by-elections contested by Labour since 1997. One poor by-election performance in a week can be attributed to bad luck; two begins to have the makings of a pattern.
It is clear that there is significant concern among many on the Labour benches about where the party fits in the post-Brexit political landscape. Out of 231 Labour-held constituencies, 161 voted Leave in the EU referendum, and just 70 Remain. When you take out Labour’s strong showing in more Europhile London, out in the country at large Labour’s MPs seem even more out of step with how many of their constituents voted.
The party faces a dual squeeze: from Tim Farron and the Lib Dems who want to poach Labour Remainers with a message of unequivocal defiance against a ‘hard Brexit’; but also from new UKIP leader Paul Nuttall – playing up his credentials as a working class Northerner – who has his eyes firmly fixed on usurping Labour in their heartlands. If that seems a fanciful ambition, just look at the electoral map of Scotland: there are no rules that say safe Labour seats will always remain so.
The party is caught between a rock and a hard place. Do they try to speak for the 48% by advocating a ‘soft Brexit’, Single Market access and continued freedom of movement? Or do they seek to reflect the concerns of many of their traditional voters with immigration and take a tougher line on this issue? Even amongst Jeremy Corbyn’s inner circle of close allies in the Shadow Cabinet, there seems to be disagreement on this point, with the likes of Diane Abbott and Clive Lewis seemingly not on the same page.
And what of Corbyn himself? His increased mandate from the party’s members and supporters in this summer’s leadership contest seemed to have secured his position for the foreseeable future. But his personal poll ratings among the electorate at large remain a significant cause for concern and unless or until these begin to improve, it is hard to see Labour’s standing do anything other than stagnate, at best.
Labour’s performance in Parliament has undoubtedly improved in recent months. Keir Starmer in particular has added a degree of robustness to the Opposition’s scrutiny of the Brexit process. But when it comes to the crunch, people will look to the leader for evidence that he is capable of turning the ship around.
On the strength of recent by-election results and opinion polls, there is much work still to be done.