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Editorial: As the Tory vote slumps it’s time for Labour to stop deluding itself

IF ANYONE other than a Tory were to win Old Bexley and Sidcup every member of our ruling class would be packing their bags and shifting their liquid assets to tax havens.

Even so the result makes sobering reading for Tory MPs. First off, a staggering 65 per cent of eligible voters failed to vote. The Tory was elected with the support of one sixth of the electorate.

Commenting on the result the Labour candidate called the party's 10 per cent increase in vote share “fantastic,” and speculated that: “If replicated at a general election, Labour would be within reach of forming a majority government.”

Back on planet Earth psephologists will have noted that Labour's 2017 vote was 14,079, in 2019 10,834 and in Thursday's by-election slumped it to 6,711 or to put it another way just about one in 10 voters.

To extrapolate from these figures enough data to allow a credible prediction of the likely outcome of a general election due in two years’ time is to invite a charge of frivolity.

But we can draw some conclusions. The first is the extreme fluidity of voters’ preferences and the contradictory character of the results.
 
Last Thursday Labour took the formerly true blue south coast town of Worthing from the Tories with a by-election win and 50.2 per cent of the vote.

In a Lancaster by-election the Lib Dems took a Tory seat with Labour bottom of the poll on one-twelfth of the vote.

In Breckland in East Anglia the Tories won even though the Lib Dems cannibalised the Labour vote. Even the appearance – behind the enemy lines so to speak – of a semi-Maoist stage army failed to garner more than 10 votes for the Workers Party of Britain.

In all these places turnout is derisory with the results turning on who can best channel the discontents of those who can be bothered to vote.

The wobbles over social care changes and the HS2 rail project added to the prime minister’s bad press over the bid to head off  Owen Paterson’s suspension from the Commons. Thus Johnson’s approval rating among Tories has slumped.  

Among the population at large a clear 50 per cent disapprove of him and he is just one point ahead of Keir Starmer with a 30 per cent approval rating.

Labour’s strategy – made explicit by the elevation of a corps of unrepentant Blairites to key shadow cabinet positions – is to pursue that elusive middle ground of swing voters in the hope that a sustained drop in the popularity of the Tories and their leader will allow Labour to creep through.

If Labour's back office strategists think that elections are won by betting on the behaviour of swing voters they should look again at the numbers.

Where the Lib Dems provide the natural home for shamefaced Tory voters they can – in absence of a clear challenge to the status quo by Labour – squeeze both Labour and the Greens.

The Tories can only be beaten by a challenge that enthuses not just loyal Labour voters but the millions that Blair and Brown lost and the many more millions of working-class voters who can see little reason to vote.

Anger at the infrastructure neglect that has left thousands freezing in Scotland and the north-east, the growing crisis in the health service, the housing scandal and Rishi Sunak’s gathering storm of austerity cuts means we have a winter of discontent ahead.

Sections of the trade union movement are targeting their cash and campaigns to a direct defence of working-class interests. It is around these initiatives that we can transform the political climate.

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