Friday, 4 March 2011

So what does Barnsley really tell us?

So - Labour has won another by-election pretty convincingly. The Liberal Democrats have been humiliated again - getting a 'kicking', according to their candidate.

The Lib Dems came sixth. It's got to hurt, this - all the more so because this used to be the party of the by-election... Remember Eastbourne in 1990, which hastened the end of Mrs Thatcher? Remember Christchurch in 1993, at which Diana Maddock overturned a huge Conservative majority on a 34 per cent swing? Ah, glory days. They must seem so long ago. Some bloggers have taken to calling their leader 'toxic Clegg' and, while this seems rather strong, he's certainly not the electoral asset he was so briefly last year. With some polls (for what they're worth) showing the Lib Dems' desperately-needed Alternative Vote reform now way behind, the storm clouds have continued to mount up for the Yellows.

Nor will the Conservatives rest easy. Their vote fell precipitously too, slinking away to UKIP and the BNP - both right-wing parties who'll be crowing that the Tories' new liberal face has lost them votes among right-thinking citizens.

Even so, Labour will hardly be punching the air this morning. In a solid working class northern town, they beat a neo-liberal government cutting services on a low turnout. Excuse me while I stifle a yawn. In fact, the danger for Labour is that they retreat further into the comfort zone that the election of Ed Milliband as their leader perhaps suggested. Everything we know about the polling suggests that Labour's lead is rather small, reactive and soft - that it is made up of people defecting from the Lib Dems, yes, but also from 'don't know' or 'don't usually vote'. Unless Labour's really careful, all that will melt away again if and when the economy recovers.

The test for Labour is not how well their message goes down in Barnsley. It's how it goes down in Crawley, Hemel Hempstead, Harlow, Dover, Swindon South, Hove and Reading West - all seats in the south of England they've held in the last ten years, and all seats they must win again to hold power in their own right. Will voters there warm to the soft left and the defence of public services per se? I doubt it. There is absolutely no doubt that the public want the deficit addressed, and that, rightly or wrongly, they think the last government overspent and overborrowed. Labour has to change that perception, or more likely, change the question and the subject. By-elections don't force you to do that. General elections do.

So what does Barnsley tell us? Not much.

We'll have to wait until May, and the Scottish and Welsh national votes, the AV referendum, and English local authority elections to look deeper into our crystal ball. Rest assured we'll be doing just that.