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Peterborough wake-up call
The public’s growing disenchantment with the two main parties has meant by-elections have often resulted in a ‘wake-up call’ expressed by a protest vote for a one-issue party coming from ‘nowhere’. The recent EU parliament elections certainly punished the two main parties and nothing had happened since to indicate a change in the public mood.
Although Peterborough was a (marginal) Labour seat, it was previously held by the Tories (2005-17); seen as ‘middle England’; voted 60% Leave in 2016; and its local MP had been publicly removed by a recall election following her criminal conviction. For these reasons at the time the by-election was announced the Tories were the bookies’ favourite to regain the seat.
There was little to no press coverage during the election campaign, which usually suggests Labour is expected to hold on. However, on election day, 6 June, the national press woke up, with reports under headlines such as “Brexit Party set to win by-election” (the Times).
Not surprising, perhaps, because in the EU election the Brexit Party had received 16,000 votes, twice as large as its nearest rival, Labour, with the Tories woefully in fourth.
The press also reported the Labour candidate Lisa Forbes, a local Unite union activist, had been accused of antisemitism because she had ‘liked’ a Facebook video “about showing solidarity with the terrorist victims in Christchurch without reading the accompanying text” (a “Labour source” reported by the Times).
This apparently claimed Theresa May had a “Zionist slave masters’ agenda.” Forbes apologised for her mistake, but Jewish groups demanded Labour disown her. Labour did not.
At the election count, Nigel Farage suddenly appeared, a sure sign the Brexit Party were expecting to win – and then before the announcement of the result, Farage just as suddenly disappeared!
Labour won by 683 votes, slightly more than in 2017 on a reduced turnout. But Labour’s share of the vote was 31% – the lowest winning share in a by-election since 1918.
Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-austerity message will have won some votes, especially in the context of the local council being Tory-controlled. Throughout the campaign, Labour had by far the most troops on the ground, culminating in 500 activists on election day. Impressive though that may be, it is the message that matters more.
Labour’s 31% share was 17 percentage points lower than in 2017 when Jeremy Corbin’s game-changer manifesto appeared promising an end to austerity.
So Peterborough was a welcome Labour victory, but nevertheless another ‘wake-up call’: a socialist programme is needed to guarantee an anti-austerity Corbyn victory at the next general election.