The follies of Feltham….
Congratulations are due to Seema Malhotra, the new Member of Parliament for Feltham and Heston. Nothing that I am about to write should detract from her achievement in being elected, it is merely intended to bring perspective to her victory. It is utter folly to read too much into a result that was achieved on the lowest turnout at a by-election for 11 years, held days before Christmas.
Mark Ferguson, writing on LabourList, put himself at the tip of the hype overdrive iceberg by saying that the seat now ‘looks beyond the Conservatives in 2015’. It is utterly impossible to conclude that from the result last night. It is equally implausible to conclude from the result that the ‘Europe bounce’ the Conservatives have registered is a blip. The thing about Europe is that David Cameron has, finally, found an issue which gives him common ground with an electorate which previously had felt disconnected from its Prime Minister. Meanwhile, his opposite number is incoherent and inconsistent arguing the opposing case.
Just because it didn’t bring people out on a cold December day does not mean that the same will apply in the future. As we have noted, people are aching for a scapegoat, somebody to blame for the current mess, and this is why the pattern of election results across the continent is ideologically incoherent. Europe seems to potentially fit the role of scapegoat very well to me and as I have said, it gives Cameron and majority opinion common ground.
Plenty of reasons exist why we should consider Feltham not as the marker of a general trend but as an outlier. In addition to the ones mentioned there is the natural sympathy that the death of a sitting MP will elicit for the incumbent Party which both motivates natural supporters and demoralises natural opponents. Furthermore, Alan Keen, the last Labour MP, received 10,145 postal votes and the new incumbent received 12,639 actual votes. This clearly indicates that many of the votes cast for the Labour candidate were most likely cast *before* the ‘Euro-bounce’ for the Conservatives occurred in any case. Given the low turnout the proportion of votes cast through the post, before the now infamous vetoing incident could be as high as 40%.
One of the things about being in opposition is that your days are empty and barren and become consumed slowly but surely by the overweening desire to be back in power. Any indicator, any marker that this is neigh is seized upon with limpet-like tenacity. So it is that Labourites who are currently clinging to Feltham are like the person who sees a drunken fumble at an Xmas party as conclusive proof that somebody loves them truly, madly and deeply.
We are doing the Party and the country no favours by keeping Labour in this enfeebled state. This is because in doing so we are avoiding the real deep-seated problems that we have as a Party. Problems that are expressed brutally here. Sure, the right has a different agenda but right now, it’s the only wing of the Labour Party that is articulating anything close to the dire nature of Labour’s position. The left is naturally more predisposed to see what it wants in a given situation and respond to the world, not as it is, but as it thinks it should be. This is why, consistently, it gets a political panning because there is no organic link between where we think things should be and where they actually are.
Criticism of the leadership is starting to break through from the left but you get the feeling that it’s not enough – that the left will remain in its terrified stupor too long. This is because, for the left, as Dan Hodges kind-of points out, the reality of supporting Ed’s leadership is increasingly about not agreeing or seeing him as a person who believes what we do but about the spectre of Tony Blair and the fear that if Ed is vanquished Blair’s ghost will return to haunt us.
Labour’s left could construct a vision and narrative which can win Labour elections. It alone has the answers in a world in which the gods of the right have failed. It can chart a course for Labour which would see it return to power and once and for all nail the myth that you cannot be left-wing *and* win elections. However, it will not do so while it is wedded to a leader who is well on course to lose us the next election. Ed will lose, and he will take the left down with him as the likes of Hodges successfully taint us by association. The only way forward for the left, for Labour as well is to snap itself out of its self-deluded stupor. You can’t help but fear that the reaction to Feltham shows we still have an awful long way to go in that journey.