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Editorial: Lessons of the Newport vote for Labour

LABOUR’S victory in the Newport West by-election is welcome news. But if this pattern of voting was reproduced over the three nations which make up the legitimate part of this disunited kingdom, the party would be in deep trouble with the prospects of a Labour government in great jeopardy.

Paul Flynn held the seat in 2017 with 22,723 votes and 52.3 per cent of the turnout. Ruth Jones managed to hold on to the seat with 9,308 votes and just 39.6 per cent.

The inescapable truth is that 13,415 people who voted Labour two years ago didn’t last week. An admittedly mechanical projection of this trend over the country as a whole would see Labour losing over eight million votes, twice what New Labour took more than a decade to lose — though the much reduced turnout suggests the picture would not be as bleak as that, as the Tory vote was also cut by over half.

Astonishingly the principal beneficiary of this dangerous turn of events was Ukip, with the recycled former Tory MP and tax-for-questions sleazebag Neil Hamilton gaining 8.6 per cent of the votes.

The real choice is Labour or Conservative. Each of the minor parties – Greens, Plaid Cymru and Lib Dems – picked up 4-5 per cent of the vote in a result, which suggests that this was less a radical reshaping of British politics and more an opportunity for voters to play by-election pick-and-mix.

The two parties which have a chance of forming a government remained broadly in contention but for Labour, this result is the bitter harvest of the divisions which have deepened with every retreat from Jeremy Corbyn’s clear commitment to respect the referendum result.

Those Labour figures intent on subverting the Brexit vote, mostly MPs, who think transparent honesty and political consistency are entirely disposable assets to be subordinated to their desire to keep Britain in the EU, need to take ownership this result.

There is no point in rehearsing the arguments which have convulsed Labour and which ascended to the heights of absurdity with the parliamentary manoeuvring over the last few weeks. Last month the Commons held eight “indicative votes” on alternatives to the deal the European Union bigwigs concocted with Theresa May.

The ploy to commit Parliament to hold a confirmatory referendum on any modified deal — a transparent manoeuvre to smuggle a second referendum in by the back door — was rejected by 295 votes to 268. On April Fool’s Day MPs divided again, this time on a further four alternative plans. A confirmatory referendum, this time cooked up by two Labour MPs, was rejected by 292 votes to 280. Enough already.

A Parliament which is overwhelmingly made up of people who want Britain to remain in the EU – with a substantial number of these willing to countenance almost any disreputable measure to achieve this goal – but which still cannot find a way of giving effect to the referendum result is a rotten Parliament with a rapidly diminishing claim to legitimacy.

But the argument that the way out of this political and constitutional crisis lies in a Labour victory in a general election begins to lose its attractive power if the prospect of such a Labour victory is thrown into doubt by a retreat from the clear commitment which Corbyn made.

With the breakdown of the talks between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn the first aim of the Prime Minister — to trap Labour into owning the mess — has failed. 

Corbyn had little choice to agree to the exercise but given her unwillingness to concede anything Labour has luckily avoided one trap. But a bigger one awaits if it fails to renew its bonds of trust with much of its natural electorate.


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