Politics may seem to be deeply confusing at present, but in fact there is one very stark conclusion to come out of the Peterborough by-election – that while Labour and the Conservatives are both deeply unpopular, the Labour vote remains more tribal than that of the Conservatives and will hold up better in a general election.
Hard though it might be to see the bright side when your party’s share of the vote has plunged from 48 per cent to 31 per cent, Peterborough is something of a quiet triumph for Jeremy Corbyn.
The Labour result is truly miserable until you realise that the Conservatives’ share fell from 46 per cent to 21 per cent. Corbyn can be confident that were a general election to be held before Brexit has completed there would be dozens of Peterboroughs all over the country: constituencies where Labour’s share of the vote plunges but where, nevertheless, it doesn’t plunge quite as far as that of the Conservatives.
Labour MP after Labour MP would triumph on a small proportion of the overall vote, while the Conservatives and Brexit Party fought it out for second place.
Let’s face it, Labour could not have begun its by-election campaign in a worse state. Its former MP, elected with a majority of only 607 two years ago, had gone to jail. The party has a leader who scores even lower personal ratings than Theresa May. Its parliamentary party is dominated by MPs who are trying their hardest to frustrate Brexit – and was fighting in a constituency which voted heavily to Leave in 2016.
And yet it still managed to win. Why? Because it suffered the loss of fewer votes to Nigel Farage than did the Conservatives. That might not seem fair – for all Theresa May’s wretched attempts to pass her bill, the Conservatives are still far more likely to carry out a meaningful Brexit than is the Labour party.
But Labour seems to enjoy the support of significant numbers of people who will ultimately vote for the party, however much it offends, because that is what they have always done and cannot imagine themselves ever doing anything else. To put it bluntly, Labour’s secret weapon is that its voters are emotionally more conservative than are those of the Conservatives. Maybe they should swap names.
For the Conservatives, the message could not be clearer: their survival depends on staving off that general election until Brexit is clearly out of the way and has been neutralised as an issue. Their only option now is to elect a leader who is committed to carrying through with Brexit on 31st October, deal or no deal. Any Conservative MPs who cannot stomach that should give up and go home – or join the Lib Dems.