The by-election boom is a flashing red light for Labour

by Rob Marchant

Coming hot on the heels of that of Jamie Reed, the resignation of Tristram Hunt may not be a huge surprise to many. A decent and politically-sensible member of the House, if not the obvious next leader he was sometimes billed as. In the end, it is perhaps inevitably those who least see politics as their true vocation, who soonest see more attractive things on the horizon.

But there’s an important take-away here. It’s simply not normal to have three MPs resign their seats in a month. Unless they are pushed, seriously ill or are going for another political job*, it’s really, really unusual for them to “just resign”.

The fact that three by-elections have been caused in the last month through MPs “just resigning” – two Labour, one Tory – is not just unusual, it’s unprecedented in recent political history.

First let’s deal with the Tory MP, Stephen Philips. His party is certainly in turmoil; over Europe, as it always is. The marginalisation of pro-Europe Tory MPs within their own party is a phenomenon which has gradually been developing over more than twenty years, since the days of John Major’s Cabinet “bastards” and before.

Even so: Brexit, let’s face it, is not exactly politics as usual. Philips was a man at his limit: a man who, as the saying goes, was mad as hell and decided he wasn’t going to take it any more. But it took a tumultuous, once-in-a-generation event to make it happen, and the current state of Labour makes Tory frictions look like a Conservative garden fête.

No, checking back through by-elections since Labour left office in 2010, there are very few and largely exceptional instances. David Miliband was a pretty unusual situation (how many political fratricides can most of us remember?). David Cameron had to resign as PM. And, well, La Mensch is La Mensch. And in the previous two parliaments there were zero. Nada. Zip.

But why is it so unusual? Particularly in Labour, the party of fraternal solidarity, “just resigning” is taboo for three reasons.

One. Not just your local members, who are inconvenienced and may feel cheated, but the whole party machine looks on you disapprovingly for causing a by-election. It’s considered to be selfish and non team-player. No, you decide to stand down mid-term in good time and make way for someone else to stand in a general election, that’s the way it’s done. You don’t mobilise a bunch of people to knock on doors for you one May, only to let them down a matter of months later.

Two. You leave a sour taste in your constituents’ mouth. They voted you in in good faith for a five-year stint and you welched. Whether or not this is fair – and in the end it’s not so simple, MPs are human beings with their own lives and responsibilities – it’s the way people often feel.

Three. Most politicians are the type of people who see it is a vocation, not a job for a few years. And image and reputation are important in politics. Corollary: you are essentially winding up your political career: no-one will offer you a seat again after that.

In short: unless they are moving on to something bigger, most MPs only leave mid-term in (a) disgrace or (b) a coffin.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of their reasons, these MPs “just resigning” have essentially decided they don’t care about the third point; that politics is going so badly wrong for them that they see no future in it for them as things stand, are leaving it forever and can’t even be bothered to wait three more years.

The meaning for Labour is this: it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that some of the more far-sighted members of the PLP are simply seeing the party’s decline as irretrievable and are leaving while they are still employable. They may be right or wrong, but If there is not some radical change of Labour’s circumstances over the coming months, what is sure is that more will follow.

If there is one terribly damaging image for a political party to project, it is surely that of rats and sinking ships. With this, the relaunch of the party leader that collapsed the same day, and its corresponding collapse in the polls, Labour must wake up to the fact that it is giving a convincing impression of being in free fall.

*this category might occasionally include, like Zac Goldsmith, Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless, reapplying for one’s own job.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left

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10 Responses to “The by-election boom is a flashing red light for Labour”

  1. john P Redi says:

    there were no resignations form parliament in the two previous parliaments,
    or are you saying he resigned in disgrace

    and boris Johnson

    for the record ,there have been 7 government who lost seats they had held, in by elections since 1955- 2005 who then went on to be re-elected

  2. Malc says:

    I agree. The silver lining is that no-one will ever offer Jamie or Tristram another seat. They’re gone for good. We can all agree on and celebrate that!

  3. Lee says:

    If Thatcher had died in the IRA Bombing at the Conservative Party Conference in the eighties, and therefore had not been bought down by colleagues during an argument about Europe, would the anti-EU movement in the Conservative Party be as strong as it has been for 25 years.

    I could be (and probably am) mistaken, but it often feels to me that the anti-EU movement is really more about Thatcher worship, and the anger that drives it is really anger at the bringing down of their hero more than it is anger at the EU, it seems like it is an example of projection

  4. Rob Marchant says:

    @John: Blair left for another political job.

    @Malc: No cause for celebration whatsoever. Decent MPs, leaving because they see no future. The party is on its knees.

  5. John P Reid says:

    Lee and instead had Tebbit had become Tory leader after the Brighton bomb, and the retaliation against the IRA we’d never have had the Good Friday agreement, and Tebbitt wouldn’t hwve been fought doen as Pm we’d never had Maastrict,which Jeremy voted against,so we’d just have had a common market,and as such, we wouldn’t hwve needed to vote to leave the EU

  6. Malc says:

    @Rob Marchant. To the contrary, this is good news for socialists. Tristram and Jamie have simply realized that the Thatcher/Blair consensus is finished. RIP neoliberalism. Everywhere!

  7. Rob, just out of consideration for truth and honesty, would you like confirm or deny knowing and meeting with Shai Masot?

  8. Rob Marchant says:

    @DannySpeight: Who? What fresh, bonkers conspiracy theory is this?

  9. That’s a bit of a non-answer isn’t it, Rob? Do you really not read or listen to the news? A denial would be good, another prevarication wouldn’t be.

  10. 28th January and no answer. I wonder what that means?

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