BREXIT UPDATE 33: The Peterborough By-Election
This was a week dominated in the British news by President Trump’s State Visit to the UK and the D-Day anniversary commemorations – but in terms of Brexit, the main story is the Peterborough by-election. Minor though this sounds in comparison to these other two events, it is significant in relation to Brexit and a future General Election, even though its main moral is the need to go beyond Brexit.
Recent opinion polls about a hypothetical General Election have fluctuated wildly, one – just after the European elections – showing the Liberal Democrats in the lead, a second placing the Brexit Party at the top of the poll, a third putting Labour back in the lead and the most recent showing the Brexit Party at the top again. The only major party that never gets to the top is the Conservative Party. But a real life by-election is the closest we can come at present to a genuine indication of how things are playing out in terms of the British electorate.
Peterborough, an ancient cathedral city in the English Midlands, voted strongly for Leave in the 2016 referendum. Up to now, Peterborough has been a Conservative/Labour marginal, switching between Conservative and Labour; it went Labour by a narrow majority in the 2017 General Election. But the Labour MP elected in 2017 was recently sentenced to three months in jail for perverting the course of justice by lying about a speeding offence; her constituents succeeded, by means of a petition, in removing her as their MP. Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party scented a strong opportunity to have their first MP elected to Parliament.
And it was widely predicted in the media that the Brexit Party would win. The Daily Express’s headline on Thursday morning is typical of the tabloid forecasts: “Labour face WIPE-OUT in Peterborough”. The Express also quoted an expert saying that this could mean the end of Corbyn. The Week – a weekly magazine that sums up the main stories of the week – reported: “pundits are tipping the Brexit Party to claim victory”. A piece on the Independent website had the sub-heading, referring to the Brexit Party, “Bookies predict the leave-backing party will romp home in an earthquake result”. It was widely reported that the Brexit Party was such a runaway favourite that the bookmakers were refusing to take any more bets on a Brexit Party win.
The Peterborough by-election campaign also affords a particularly blatant and shocking example of the misuse of the serious charge of antisemitism for political purposes. Jewish communal leaders and the Jewish Chronicle accused the Labour candidate, Lisa Forbes, of antisemitism: her Facebook posts had been trawled by a freelance investigator to reveal that she had “liked” a thread by a Muslim that included the anti-Israel – but not anti-Jewish — comments that Theresa May had “a Zionist Slave Masters agenda” and the CIA and Mossad were funding Islamist extremists (she responded that she had expressed approval of a video showing mourners coming together after the New Zealand mosque shootings and was not referring to these remarks); she had signed a letter organised by Jewish Voice for Labour (many might object politically to the views expressed in the letter, but there was no antisemitism in it whatsoever); and she had opposed the adoption by the Labour Party of the IHRA definition of antisemitism (the claim that the widespread opposition to this definition in the name of freedom of speech is itself antisemitic is too nonsensical and totalitarian to merit further comment). It was widely thought that these allegations would further damage her chances of being elected – and of course damage Corbyn.
Yet, despite all expert predictions and unfounded, politically-motivated accusations of antisemitism, the Labour Party held Peterborough on Thursday night (June 6), as a result of a dedicated campaign by Labour activists. The results, in percentages, are: Labour: 31; Brexit Party: 29; Conservatives: 21; Lib Dems: 12; Greens 3; UKIP: 1; Others: 2. Corbyn told Sky News:
“All the experts wrote Lisa off. All the experts wrote Labour off. Write Labour off at your peril! We are strong; we are very determined to offer that politics that invests in decent services, in decent housing, in decent healthcare and in good quality jobs for the future – and a relationship with Europe that doesn’t take us over a cliff-edge and that protects jobs, protects investment and gives our young people that future.”
And he ended by calling for a general election, saying “bring it on”.  He made no mention of a second referendum. Some Labour members are, however, asserting that only a surge of Remain support – tactical voting in order to prevent a Brexit Party victory – enabled Labour to beat the Brexit Party, the moral being that, to keep these voters, Labour should reposition itself as a Remain party backing a second referendum. The Liberal Democrats and Greens increased their vote share in the by-election (the Lib Dems by nine per cent); and it has been claimed by some Labour Remainers that Labour — which, despite winning and increasing its majority, saw its vote share decrease by 17 per cent — lost a considerable number of Remainer votes to the Liberal Democrats and Greens (despite these Remainers’ fears of a Brexit Party win) ; therefore, it is said, Labour should go for a second referendum.
But other commentators argue that the result shows that, in Leave-voting areas like Peterborough, Labour faces its main danger from the Brexit Party, its closest rival; so Labour needs to prevent Leavers defecting to the Brexit Party. Thus the Skwawkbox blog stated before the result that door-knocking Labour activists “have consistently reported meeting ex-Labour voters supporting the Brexit party, all telling the same story: that Labour is ‘too remain’”. In an article in the New Statesman, Dave Ward, the General Secretary of the Communication Workers’ Union, writes that Labour “would not have won in Peterborough” if Labour had repositioned itself as a Remain party backing a second referendum. He goes on: .
”Across England and Wales there are hundreds of seats – just like Peterborough – that Labour must win to secure a majority in parliament at the next election. It certainly will not do that if it ends up nailing its colours to the idea of overturning the result of a democratic referendum which the political class promised it would respect.”
Skwawkbox and Dave Ward may seem too partisan; but the centre-left, “Blairite” journalist John Rentoul writes in the Independent that
“the key fact about last night’s result is that Labour lost less ground than the Conservatives. This 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…..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.”
And he reaches the conclusion:
“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 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…..Of all the losers, Labour lost least.” 
And by losing least, he suggests, Labour can win a General Election, even though the Liberal Democrats and the Brexit Party are now challenging the traditional two-party dominance of Labour and the Conservatives. Even in the four-horse race that a British General Election is likely now to become (ironically making the UK more European), the Peterborough by-election result indicates that Labour can win with its present strategy.
But Dave Ward of the Communications Workers Union puts his finger on the real reason that Labour won on Thursday in Peterborough: that Labour took the argument away from Brexit and on to local issues: “Labour won in Peterborough because it was able to cut through the Brexit issue and refocus people’s minds on the other profound issues facing our country and their local communities” – such as the National Health Service, schools, crime, poverty and local problems such as fly-tipping.
Though Corbyn is often described as an extremist, he occupies the real “centre-ground” between the poles of Remaining and Leaving without a deal. Remainers are just as extreme and fanatical as No Dealers. His message is more nuanced and complex than the simple, clear slogans of the Liberal Democrats and the Brexit Party, but for that very reason it transcends the gulf created by Brexit and Brexit itself to engage with the important issues affecting people’s daily lives.
Yesterday (Friday June 7), the Maybot stepped down as Conservative Party leader; and the race to find her successor begins officially on Monday. The next Brexit Update will discuss the Conservative leadership contest.