by Kevin Meagher
Labour will win the Rotherham by-election tomorrow.
To paraphrase George Orwell, that’s a revolutionary prediction in a time of angst for the party in what is usually thought to be a safe northern heartland.
A perfect storm of hostile circumstances surrounds this election, from the botched selection of the party’s candidate through to last weekend’s train wreck issue when a foster couple in the town, who happen to be members of UKIP, had three children removed from their care – with 20 minutes notice.
But these are trifles compared to the deeper issues affecting the town – and the election.
It is of course set against the revelation of a systematic problem of child-grooming by mainly Pakistani men in the town. Specifically, the indolence – and therefore complicity – of public authorities in Rotherham who knew of the problem and failed to act out of a misplaced sense of not wanting to inflame racial tension.
And, not to be forgotten, there’s the actual reason for the by-election in the first place: the resignation of Denis MacShane, in disgrace, after the Commons’ standards and privileges committee pilloried him over his expense claims.
Labour’s candidate, Sarah Champion, has her work cut out. Not aided by the circumstances of her selection (and, to be fair, no fault of hers) which saw half the membership storm out of the selection meeting, leaving just a couple of dozen members to actually vote. She also has to contend with the party’s tattered reputation in the town and if that’s not enough, there’s the small matter of getting out the vote on a bitterly cold winter’s day.
Little wonder, then, that the chatterers are talking down Labour’s chances. But they are wrong; Labour will, despite these not inconsiderable travails, hold Rotherham tomorrow.
There are two reasons to be cautiously optimistic. The first is that while Respect will undoubtedly hoover-up votes from within the town’s Muslim community there are not enough to win the election, barring a catastrophic fall in Labour support.
According to Rotherham’s joint strategic needs assessment, the main document for planning key public services, just 7.5 per cent of the town is made up of people from BME (‘Black Minority ethnic’) communities, with around 7,600 Pakistani Muslims. Given Respect’s appeal is narrowly-focused here, there should not be enough support to repeat the Bradford Spring.
Then there’s the threat from the right. At the 2010 election, the Tories came second with 16.7 per cent of the vote, while the BNP managed 10.1 per cent of the vote and UKIP got a further 5.9 per cent. That’s 33 per cent voting for right-wing and very right-wing parties. On the face of it, the party should be worried that there is a strong anti-Labour challenge from the right.
But there are eleven candidates standing in the election tomorrow and although Labour is not in great shape in the town the lack of a clear single alternative to spearhead a protest should be telling.
The most likely scenario therefore remains a Labour victory, albeit with a reduced majority. But then the hard work begins. Rotherham is an example of the kind of Labour heartland towns with ingrained political, social and economic problems which are becoming unpredictable places for the party these days.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut