by Kevin Meagher
So as we predicted earlier this week, Labour held Rotherham last night. And, on the face of it, in impressive style.
Labour’s Sarah Champion lived up to her name winning 46 per cent of the vote, 1.7 per cent up on 2010. UKIP were next on 21.8 per cent, with the BNP in third place.
Against the triple whammy of a horrible child grooming scandal in the town, the case of the foster parents who had three children removed from their care by the local council for being UKIP members and the circumstances of Denis MacShane’s resignation, it was not a bad night, all in all, for Labour.
The Lib Dems crashed to eighth place, repeating their dismal performance in the recent police commissioner elections in South Yorkshire when they managed fifth place. Out of five.
They could only muster 451 votes last night, on a 13.9 per cent swing away from their 2010 result when 5,994 people voted for them. Not enough support, then, to win a local council by-election in the town.
So where are these ex-Lib Dems going?
If they are coming straight over to Labour, which seems perfectly plausible given what we know about voting patterns between the two parties, then Labour’s result would have been even more impressive.
Could some of those defecting Lib Dems be heading for UKIP then? Granted its unlikely given the Lib Dems’ swivel-eyed pro-Europeanism, but even the 11.3 per cent swing away from the Tories doesn’t fully account for UKIP’s 15.9 per cent increase.
Is something more complex, but perhaps more troubling for Labour taking place; could Labour be gaining Lib Dems at a rate of knots but losing other supporters to UKIP at the same time?
My ever-prescient colleague Peter Watt floated this scenario the other day.
But why would Labour be losing support when the national situation seems so favourable?
Take my metaphorical plumber.
If you are a self-employed plumber struggling to find work in the downturn Labour’s message on the economy probably chimes with you. You are probably from safe Labour-voting stock. You scream at the television whenever George Osborne appears, telling him to pump more money into infrastructure and cut VAT get the economy moving again.
Similarly, you have always worked, pay your way and don’t rely on the state; but you look aghast at people on benefits who don’t seem to want to work like you do. When you see those people in the public sector marching for their pensions you wonder what planet they’re on when you can’t even afford one.
You are really aggrieved about waste in the EU and wonder why no-one ever sorts it out. You experience the sharp end of foreign immigrant plumbers competing with you for work and you’re not overly thrilled by the idea of gay marriage.
In this case, Labour – and the other mainstream parties – don’t really reflect your views anymore. You are bothered about issues no-one ever seems to do anything about. Which of course begs the question, which party hates EU waste, wants to stop immigration and opposes gay marriage?
No wonder Nigel Farage is grinning. His boast about taking support from across the political spectrum is usually dismissed as wishful thinking, but he may be right.
This matters. There are lots of similar plumbers, classic C2s, in marginal seats who are not motivated to join protest marches in defence of public sector jobs, or third world aid, or to oppose wars. But they are still an important part of a winning coalition, as Labour found to its cost during the 1980s when, by and large, they voted Conservative.
If defecting Lib Dems are switching to Labour because they see a party committed to public spending and social liberalism above all else, then the question Labour needs to ask is whether this in turn makes it harder to win over those plumbers, who may hold traditionalist social views and small state economic ones, but who will still vote for fairness, decent schools and to support the NHS.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut