Corbyn’s Brexit strategy is uninspiring, but it saw Labour over the line in Peterborough

The result means Labour is less likely to support a new referendum, and the new Conservative prime minister is less likely to go for an early general election

John Rentoul
Friday 07 June 2019 12:40
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Peterborough by-election: Labour holds off Brexit Party

Labour held on to its seat in the Peterborough by-election, narrowly, which means it can lose support over Brexit and still win. The key fact about last night’s result is that Labour lost less ground than the Conservatives.

That is a setback for those in the Labour Party arguing that it should support a second referendum. Maybe if it had done, its candidate Lisa Forbes would still have won. Labour would have lost some Leave votes, but it might have gained enough Remainers from the Liberal Democrats, who quadrupled their share of the vote to 12 per cent.

But we can’t know that. All we can know is that Jeremy Corbyn’s strategy of straddling Leave and Remain succeeded in holding the seat.

That means an early general election seems less likely. It had seemed, briefly, as if an election was the only way that Boris Johnson – if he becomes prime minister – could deliver Brexit on 31 October.

The Peterborough result puts that idea back in the freezer. A general election would be all about which of the two main parties loses most. The answer from Peterborough is that Labour’s share of the vote was down 17 percentage points since the general election, while the Conservative share dropped 25 points.

Johnson would hope that his campaigning zip, and his promise of a no-deal exit from the EU, would win back votes from Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, but after last night that seems a riskier assumption.

The same pattern is repeated in this morning’s YouGov poll of Great Britain. It puts the Brexit Party in the lead on 26 per cent, with Labour and the Lib Dems both on 20 per cent and the Tories in fourth place with 18 per cent.

What matters in a general election is the difference between Labour and the Conservatives; and Labour are down 21 points since the general election, while the Tories are down 25 points.

As Peterborough showed, the thing about the “first past the post” voting system is that a party can win on a low share of the vote. Labour held the seat with just 31 per cent – less than a third of the vote. With four parties, that is enough to win.

In a general election, Corbyn’s policy of facing both ways on Brexit may not be the terrible strategy that his internal critics say it is. (The internal critics and Alastair Campbell, who is now an external critic, having voted Lib Dem in the European elections in protest.)

The Peterborough result also suggested there is a limit to the Brexit Party’s vote. Although the party won an estimated 37 per cent of the vote in the constituency in the European elections, on a lower turnout, it won just 29 per cent last night. And that was in a by-election, traditionally a chance for protest voting.

Maybe if Nigel Farage himself had stood as the candidate he could have made the 683 votes needed to win, but his decision not to take that risk was vindicated last night. Of all the losers, Labour lost least.

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