by Kevin Meagher
Tomorrow, Labour faces a massive electoral test that hasn’t, so far, garnered much publicity. Forget Heywood and Middleton, if Labour loses the by-election for a new Police and Crime Commissioner in South Yorkshire, deepest red Labour territory and the political backyard of Ed Miliband and a swathe of the shadow cabinet, the fallout will be immense.
Twelve months ago, the concept of Labour faring badly here would have been unthinkable. In the 2012 Rotherham by-election, caused by the resignation of Denis MacShane for fiddling his expenses, Labour held on comfortably, with more than double the share of the vote of second-placed UKIP.
That was then. Now, with the Rotherham child grooming scandal still reverberating – in all its three-dimensional awfulness – bookies have UKIP hot on Labour’s heels as we enter the last day of campaigning.
As I wrote at the time, the party’s initial response to the Rotherham scandal was slow and uncertain. Not much has changed since. Indeed, there have not been, as far as I am aware, any visits by Ed Miliband to reassure people there that this bleak episode in the party’s management of the town will not be repeated. Contrition has been thin on the ground.
Let’s be clear: the systematic abuse of children and young girls by gangs of Pakistani-heritage men in the town was unforgivable. Girls in care were thrown to the wolves by inept council officials who put political correctness ahead of decency and common sense. Grooming was seen as girls making “informed choices”. The police couldn’t have cared less. There is no other way of dressing it up. There is no missing context. This was a vile episode. Some heads have rolled – and deservedly so. Others should follow.
Professor Alexis Jay’s report made clear that there were at least 1,400 victims. This is her conservative estimate, as young Pakistani girls and boys were also abused, but are less like to report it for cultural reasons.
And the shame for it rests squarely at Labour’s door. The ‘wicked’ Tories weren’t to blame. Neither were the Lib Dems or UKIP. Between them, a Labour council and Labour-controlled police force created this mess. Meanwhile, the town’s MPs were apparently blissfully unaware.
What we do know, is that fears about “inflaming community tensions” – one of the main excuses for inaction – were misplaced. For all the anger in the town, there are no reports of riots or disturbances since Professor Jay’s report was published.
All that is left are decent working class communities crying out for someone to do something to make sure this can never happen again. We will have to wait and see if they are prepared to give Labour a last chance. And hope that the visceral disgust felt across Rotherham does not spill over to the rest of South Yorkshire.
So back to the question: can Labour lose on Thursday? There is little polling evidence to base a judgement on, just a pervasive sense of malaise from the electorate. It is fuelled by the reason for this by-election: the behaviour of the disgraced Shaun Wright in hanging on to his role even after it was clear he was mired in the Rotherham scandal from his time in charge of children’s services in the town. (The final straw that triggered his resignation appears to have been the vigil that members of the English Defence League were keeping outside his house).
Mike Smithson, the respected pollster and editor of PoliticalBetting.com, thinks an upset is possible:
“Turnout in these elections, as we’ve seen, is pitifully low and might present UKIP with a huge opportunity on Thursday. The momentum is certainly with the party.”
Yet, despite the fact ten of UKIP’s top 100 Labour target parliamentary seats are in South Yorkshire, the party only made relatively modest progress in June’s local elections, winning just two seats in Sheffield, one in Doncaster and none at all in Barnsley, although, it has to be conceded, they did win ten in Rotherham before Professor Jay’s report was even published. (A spike that probably reflects disgust with Denis MacShane).
Personally, I think a low turnout and modest Labour win is the likeliest outcome. Sheffield and the other South Yorkshire towns should offset any UKIP surge in Rotherham. But if Labour does lose, it will signify a collapse in the party’s working class support and expose its fallibility in its once impregnable strongholds.
With so much staked on a Labour victory tomorrow, Ed Miliband really has to sort out the party’s rotten boroughs to avoid ever being put in this position again.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut