Richard North, 08/06/2019  

In the wake of the Peterborough by-election, the analysts have been hard at work putting their personal spin on events. Up front is John Curtice, writing in the Telegraph, the headline declaring: "No, Peterborough doesn't mean 'business as usual' for the Labour Party".

"So that’s it, then", he writes. "From remarkable victory in the European elections to devastating defeat in Peterborough just a fortnight later. The Brexit Party is little more than a seven-day wonder".

This, of course, is his provocative starter, which he immediately contradicts, as he asserts:
Hardly. Winning 29 percent of the vote, the party's performance outshone all but the very best of Ukip's performances at the height of their popularity before the 2015 election. Apart from the two seats, Clacton and Rochester, where local Conservative MPs resigned in order to stand again in Ukip's colours, only in one instance – in Heywood and Middleton in October 2014 – did Ukip ever win more than the 29 per cent the Brexit Party secured in Peterborough.
Needless to say, Curtice doth protest too much, but then he is writing for the Telegraph. This is a paper which has its own agenda to support, talking up the Farage threat to help its favourite son gain the premiership. He would like us to think that we haven't been there before – that Peterborough was somehow special, unique even, and it will need all the skills of the turd-giver to restore equilibrium.

He writes of Heywood and Middleton, where Ukip's John Bickley came second, taking 11,016 votes, losing to Labour's Liz McInnes who gained 11,633 votes. Labour's share of the vote was 40.9 percent and Ukip took 38.7 percent, representing a 36-point increase in the party's support.

This, according to Wikipedia, was one of the largest increases in vote share ever recorded in a by-election. Only in six previous contests in Great Britain had a party enjoyed a larger increase and it was also the highest increase ever recorded for a party that did not win the by-election.

But there is another interesting statistic to come out of the by-election - the turnout was extremely low, at 36 percent. That translated into the support of exactly 14 percent of the electorate. In terms of pulling in the voters, therefore, Ukip's performance in Heywood and Middleton almost exactly matched the Farage party in Peterborough five years later.

Nor does it stop there. Curtice conveniently omits to mention the Eastleigh by-election of 2013. That, at the time, created its own shockwaves where Ukip's Diane James was expected to win the first seat for the party.

In the event, she took 11,571 votes, coming second to the Lib-Dem's Mike Thornton who won the seat with 13,342 votes. But, in this contest, the turnout was that much higher, at 52.8 percent. Thus her 27.8 percent vote share translated into 14.7 percent of the electorate who were prepared to support the "insurgent" party.

The point about using the percentage support from the electorate as a whole is an important one. Farage, in both his Ukip and current iteration, presents himself as an "insurgent". For his crusade to succeed, he must bring "fresh meat" into the fray, voters who are so disillusioned with the political process that they have opted out.

Changing politics has to be more than redistributing a fixed quantum of votes, with the incomer taking an increased share. It's about energising and enthusing the electorate so that politics becomes a greater part of people's lives. If Farage can't get through to a wider constituency, then he ends up competing for the same group of voters.

On the basis of electoral support, this "churning" is what seems to be happening. Furthermore, the 2013 Eastleigh by-election, so far, has represented the high water mark of the insurgents. In six years, Diane James's performance has never been beaten. And around 14 percent seems to be about the maximum level of support the insurgents can attain.

Farage, unsurprisingly, thinks differently. "We are witnessing a dramatic, rapid and undeniable shift in the terrain of British politics – whether the establishment parties want to admit it or not".

For every one point of view, though, there is another. In this case, it is expressed by Stephen Bush. Writing in The New Statesman, he picks up on one of the prominent excuses by the failed Farage party, under the headline: "The Brexit Party's complaints about postal votes show that it is just a rebranded Ukip".

Writes Bush: "The Brexit Party left Peterborough the same way Ukip left Eastleigh, and Wythenshawe, and Newark, and Middleton: clutching a silver medal and snarling about postal votes and the ethnic vote".

According to Bush, this attests to two things: "the extent to which the Brexit Party is just Ukip rebranded, with the same strengths and the same weaknesses, and to its tendency for belligerence in the face of electoral disappointment". He continues:
Postal votes are a vital tool for all the established parties, because someone with a postal vote is significantly more likely to vote than someone without a postal vote, and because the postal vote deadline is sooner, they have less time to change their mind. This is why parties spend a lot of time outside election season finding their voters and getting them onto postal votes.

The Brexit Party didn't have the time to find its most committed voters, let alone get them onto postal votes, and would have been unable to even attempt to persuade and convert the voters who had long since voted for its opponents by post.

The closeness of the margin and the longstanding tendency of Farage-led parties to be dysfunctional at a local level will mean that postal votes will have tipped the outcome away from the Brexit Party in Peterborough, just as it did to Ukip in Eastleigh in a 2013 by-election. But the result also attests to Labour's organisational good health, and that the vote of one British citizen is no more legitimate than another, no matter the colour of their skin.
We know, Bush adds, that the Brexit party has all the strengths of Farage's Ukip – its telegenic leader, who is a past master at manipulating the broadcasters, plus a slew of experienced veterans who know how to thrive as a minor party – but the open question about the new party is whether it could shuck off its weaknesses.

You can take this as it comes, or not. But Bush's comment about the "longstanding tendency of Farage-led parties to be dysfunctional at a local level" strikes a chord. Farage is a one-trick pony, and in his 25 years as a professional politician, he has learnt how to do one thing well – fighting the Euro-elections.

What he has never mastered is how to translate his undoubted skills to the local level. At one time, he was given a copy of the Lib-Dems' confidential election manual, setting out how to fight and win by-elections. But Farage wasn't interested. He didn't look at his gift.

Every time Farage's "insurgents" take on a by-election, it's as if it was the first time around. Each candidate has to find their own way through the maze, starting from fresh. And while Farage does the media grandstanding, it is left to the hapless candidates to do the messy detail. The one thing Farage doesn't do is detail.

The other thing Farage doesn't do is loyalty. At the count over Thursday night and the small hours of Friday, Farage and his sidekick Richard Tice made themselves scarce. Had Greene won, Farage would have been right there, centre of attraction ready to speak to the world's media. But, as Greene lost, they left him to take the flak on his own.

Farage now argues that his failure was all the fault of Conservatives voters – for voting Conservative. Turning logic on its head, he declares that, "if you vote Conservative, you are going to finish up with a Corbyn government".

So there you go – if you don't want Corbyn, vote Farage. You know it makes sense.

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