8 Oct 2014

Why isn’t Labour going for Rochester?

Labour has decided not to run a serious campaign in the Rochester and Strood by-election.  Instead, the party will run a token effort, just as they did in Newark, and just as they are currently doing in Clacton.

This is an extraordinary decision, and tells us a lot about the current state of Ed Miliband’s Labour party – playing it safe, lacking ambition, and resting on the party’s core vote.  In short, displaying incredible weakness.  The hope seems to be in each case that Labour can step back and let Ukip and the Conservatives tear chunks off each other.

But let’s look at the figures in Rochester and Strood.  These were the votes at the last election:

Con (Reckless) 23,604 (49 per cent)
Lab                13,651 (28.5 per cent)
Lib Dem            7,800 (16 per cent)
Eng Dem           2,182 (4.5 per cent)
Green              734 (1.5 per cent)

Con majority    9,953

Ukip didn’t stand in 2010, to give Eurosceptic Mark Reckless a clear run.  Now suppose that Reckless splits his 2010 vote and he and the new Conservative candidate get 24.5 per cent each.  That would leave a clear win for Labour.  What’s more Labour could expect to pick up a substantial chunk of the Lib Dem vote to make their position even more promising.


Now admittedly the currents and eddies of voting are a lot more complicated than I’ve just outlined.  Some Lib Dems may switch to the Tories or Ukip, and so on.  But you would expect Labour to give it a go.

Labour argue that Rochester isn’t one of their 67 target seats.  Maybe not, but until 2010 Rochester was a Labour seat, helped by the famous maverick Bob Marshall-Andrews.

Instead Labour will run a low-key campaign like Newark or Clacton.  Ed Miliband and most leadng shadow cabinet members will put in appearances, but the party will really just go through the motions hoping to shore up as many Labour votes as they can.  They’ll spend a budget of about £25,000, similar to the £25,272 they spent in Newark, barely one quarter of the permitted £100,000.

Labour also say that they don’t have the resources to run a proper by-election.  It’s true that Labour has had to spend a lot on by-elections in this parliament – partly because a lot more Labour MPs have either died, or gone to jail for expenses fraud.  But it’s hard to believe they couldn’t at least raise the £100,000 for a half-decent campaign in Rochester.

What a boost it would give Labour to come through the middle and beat both the Conservatives and Ukip.  It would restore dreadful party morale after the huge disappointment of the party conference in Manchester.  By-election gains are always a great indicator of whether a party is on its way back to power.

Labour’s candidate in Rochester – Naushabah Khan – must feel terribly let down by her party nationally.  And it leaves Labour looking incredibly cautious, unadventurous and feeble.

Indeed, Labour voters may be left asking, not just in these by-elections, but also next May: “Well, if the party can’t really be bothered, why should I?”

A further thought occurs to me.  Maybe Labour doesn’t actually want to win Rochester, because to do so would need Ukip to take thousands of votes from the Tories.  That would only reinforce the Conservative line that “a vote for Ukip is a vote for Ed Miliband”.

If that argument were to gain force it might hugely damage Labour’s election chances next May, which now seem to depend on Ukip causing severe damage to the Tory vote.

It’s dangerous stuff.  By playing it low-key in various by-elections, Labour could be in danger of feeding the Ukip beast, only to find the creature turns round later and bites them too.

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