With the local party annoyed over the botched selection; the public, too, over Denis MacShane’s expenses; Respect and the BNP winding things up between different communities; the aftermath of the grooming scandal; and finally, the UKIP adoption row which broke during the campaign itself, Rotherham was awash with pitfalls for Labour.
It was always going to be the most interesting and difficult to call of the six November by-elections, and Labour have done a good job in pouring resources into the seat and ultimately holding onto it by a good margin. Now its challenge is how to interpret the result: while some celebrating is fair enough, it is also tempting to draw entirely wrong conclusions from this and the other by-elections.
Wrong lesson number one: the far left is dead. It is not. In fact, it is undergoing something of a resurgence.
Now, what Rotherham did show us is that the controversy over Galloway’s rape comments, with its subsequent resignations, has surely helped do for Respect’s electoral chances. Bradford West, we can now see, was Galloway’s perfect storm: a seat where discontent with Labour locally and an unusually high proportion of Muslim voters allowed an overtly sectarian campaign with a nationally-known candidate to succeed.
Respect in Rotherham had none of these things, and was never going to win there. Yvonne Ridley may be a former journalist known to the Westminster lobby for her kidnapping by the Taliban and subsequent conversion to Islam; but in mostly non-Muslim Rotherham, someone who took time out of the by-election campaign to attend a rally for Gaza probably came across as merely rather odd. And the party’s divisive campaign, setting communities against each other in a town still recovering from the grooming scandal, was surely counter-productive.
But the far left is coming back: and the threat to Labour is not electoral, but of infiltration into its party and movement. Not just Respect, but the Socialist Workers Party and others, are gathering in fringe organisations, such as the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and the Stop The War Coalition, supported by a number of Labour MPs. The former, for example, counts the new Secretary General of the TUC amongst its supporters. And their presence is starting to be seen at senior level within Labour, as backbench supporters of those organisations move into front bench positions: an advancement that could one day spell disaster for Labour.
Wrong lesson number two: with six straight by-election wins, Labour is gaining ground and is now very well-positioned for the general election. No, Labour is simply staying out of trouble: the Coalition is in trouble.
While it should be congratulated on its broad-based One Nation initiative, it has done precious little overall to earn the positive endorsement of the electorate. Polling shows that neither its leader nor its narrative on the economy is yet trusted and, despite its consistent poll lead, as YouGov’s Peter Kellner recently pointed out, no postwar opposition party has returned to power without achieving a 20% lead at some point, something which has so far eluded Labour. As its One Nation policies develop, these things may change.
No, Labour has won in Rotherham largely because it had an established vote and a good national electoral machine (the local machine was hobbled by the messy candidate selection). It has not won because people are enthused by Labour nationally. Labour’s majority was still down, and a relatively comfortable win on a poor, 34% turnout tells us little about Labour’s real support. Given that turnout in the other two by-elections was significantly worse – only a quarter of the electorate in each – one can only conclude that all mainstream parties are putting off voters (Manchester Central, two weeks before, had the lowest by-election turnout since World War II). A plague on all your houses.
Wrong lesson number three: the poor vote for Coalition candidates shows it is on the ropes. It is not. It is having a tough mid-term because of its austerity programme, and is also making a lot of unforced errors. But by 2015 it will very probably be presiding over a growing economy, over which much will be forgiven and forgotten.
Incidentally, there is also a wrong lesson for the Tories: that UKIP’s good showing is because it is somehow representative of the British public – it isn’t. It's the best of a bad bunch of fringe parties, and Tory tacking to the right will only help Labour. In fact, a positive finding from Rotherham is that the British public in 2012 will generally eschew the real extremes, even when they choose to protest vote (it has not always been so).
Although the BNP came third, and even with the unusual wildcard of the grooming scandal, they polled just 1,800 – hardly a resounding vote of confidence – and against a background of national decline. UKIP, on the other hand, attained their best-ever by-election result because they were relatively normal; and they might well have done so anyway, without any boost from the fostering scandal. In fact, here’s how virtually any party could have come second in Rotherham: (a) not being a major party; (b) not being an independent; (c) having a candidate with non-swivelling eyes.
So, after Rotherham, Cameron will inevitably hear siren voices beckoning him from the right. If he wants to win, he needs to resist them: Britons are grumpy about Europe but they are not anti-Europe, as election after election has shown.
If Labour can learn the right lessons, they can continue to evolve between now and 2015 so that they are setting the agenda and the election is theirs to lose. Or they can learn the wrong ones, of complacency and one-more-heave, and drift into a situation where their only hope is that Cameron learns the wrong ones as well.