Does the result in Newark confirm Ed Miliband as a Neil Kinnock?

Polls carried out before the by-election had the Tory vote too low and Labour's vote too high


Ed Miliband is right and Tony Blair is wrong about Ukip. In my unfamiliar role as a supporter of the current Labour leader, I will not point out that third place in the Newark by-election was a poor result for an opposition that hopes to form a government in less than a year. It wasn't great, but even when Blair was in his pomp Labour would occasionally cede to the Liberal Democrats the right to take out Conservative government seats in by-elections. As the Lib Dems are no longer available for such duties, voters in Newark decided that Ukip was a better vehicle of anti-Government protest than Labour.

That Ukip failed to take this opportunity tells us all we need to know about the decline of Nigel Farage's party. It may win a seat in the general election, where Farage himself decides to stand, but after that the party is over.

As the purple soufflé subsides, however, Ukip's voters are more likely to go to the Tories than to Labour. That is why Miliband has been right, I think, to take Ukip voters seriously. He has been criticised for pandering to the xenophobic concerns of supporters of a xenophobic party. I disagree. Most voters, whichever party they support, want less immigration.

Labour activists might be heartened if Miliband attacked Ukip and defended immigration, but swing voters wouldn't like it. Thus we had the paradox last month of the liberal-left metropolitan elite cheering Blair on the Today programme, as he urged Miliband to "confront" Ukip, "expose them and take them on", while Miliband stuck to the true Blairite course of appealing to the centre ground, saying: "It is not prejudiced to worry about immigration."

Miliband has also, rightly, annoyed Blair by saying that the Labour government got it wrong in 2004, when it chose, unlike the French and the Germans, not to impose transitional controls on the free movement of workers from new EU countries. He and Yvette Cooper, the shadow Home Secretary, have taken a more restrictive line than the Government. In January, the coalition changed the rules to deny out-of-work benefits to citizens of other EU countries for three months. Labour wants to extend that period to six months.

Thus Cooper has cut the Tory lead on "best party to handle immigration" in YouGov polls from 25 points at the last election to nine points now. No doubt she will stick to the true Blairite position when interrogated by Andrew Marr this morning, rather than go for the neo-Blairite tactic of energising Labour's activist base. She and Miliband are right to recognise that many people on low incomes, who ought to be the party's natural supporters, regard the free movement of workers throughout the EU as a threat rather than an opportunity. While it isn't possible to infringe the basic principle of free movement without leaving the EU, Labour ought to impose what restrictions it can.

While we are praising Miliband, and while he is under attack for the way he looks, it ought to be said that he has one personal quality going for him. He has shown quite extraordinary resilience over the past four years.

He is going to need it over the next year, because there was an ominous sign for him beneath the surface of the Newark by-election. By-elections in which a seat fails to change hands may not seem the most exciting of events, but they are important because they allow us to assess the accuracy of opinion polls. Two were carried out in Newark in the final two weeks, one by Lord Ashcroft and the other by Survation. Both predicted a comfortable Conservative win over Ukip. But both had the Tory share of the vote too low by three points and Labour's share too high by two and four points respectively. The same thing happened in the six final polls before last month's European Parliament election: on average the pollsters had the Tory vote 1.7 points lower than the result and Labour's vote 1.5 points higher.

This ought to alarm Miliband. It suggests a recurrence of the problem that the party faced – although it didn't know it – at the 1992 election. The opinion polls suggested that Labour under Neil Kinnock was just ahead, but that lead turned into an eight-point Tory lead on polling day. The inquest carried out by the polling companies suggested that part of the error was their failure to account for differences in the likelihoods of Labour and Tory supporters turning out; but another part was a late swing to the Tories as voters shied away at the last moment from the prospect of Kinnock as prime minister.

If the recent narrowing – and brief vanishing – of Labour's poll lead was linked to people focusing on an actual voting decision in actual elections, Miliband ought to be very worried. Kinnock welcomed Miliband's election as leader, saying, "We've got our party back." But in Miliband has the party got its Kinnock back?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Regulatory / Compliance / Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: Exeter - An excellent opportunity for a Solici...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - 12 Month Fixed Term - Shrewsbury

£17000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Helpdesk Support Technician - 12 ...

The Jenrick Group: Maintenance Planner

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Maintenance...

The Jenrick Group: World Wide PLC Service Engineer

£30000 - £38000 per annum + pesion + holidays: The Jenrick Group: World Wide S...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Mary Christmas: the Bethlehem story is Mary's moment, when a poor peasant girl gives birth to the Son of God in a stable  

The appeal of the Virgin Mary: A supernatural hope at a time of scepticism

Peter Stanford

Letters: Why Cameron is wrong about EU child benefits

Independent Voices
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'