The by-election result in Thirsk and Malton last night, near where I grew up*, was bad news for Labour. The party had hoped that former Lib Dem voters (of the left-leaning variety) would rush to their arms in protest at the coalition. Except that’s not what happened in this ballot, prompted by the death of a candidate on the eve of the general election.
Instead, the Tory share of the vote crept up from 52 per cent to 53 per cent, a comfortable win for incumbent Anne McIntosh. The Lib Dems rose from 19 to 23 per cent. It was Labour which saw support crumble – from 23 per cent to 13.5 per cent – in the newly-created constituency.
On paper that looks disastrous for Labour, an indictment on a party that is leaderless, directionless and still in a state of shock. It is also appears confirmation that the coalition is on the right track.
In fact it may be symptomatic of the fact that all new governments enjoy a honeymoon; even Gordon Brown had three months or so of public goodwill in the distant summer of 2007. How long this one will last remains to be seen.
One leadership contender told me that the shine didn’t come off Tony Blair’s first government until the Ecclestone (pictured) affair, which was only about six months after the May 1997 election. Someone who worked for the Tory party at the time says this isn’t quite right and that people believed Blair’s excuse (re Ecclestone) that he was a “pretty straight guy“. Instead, he argues, it was several years before “the scales fell from people’s eyes”; his theory was that the cracks only started to show after the publication of Servants of The People – by Andrew Rawnsley – which gave an insider’s view into New Labour, warts and all. That book was published in late 2000; three years into Blair’s regime.
In the meantime the worst thing Labour could do is to lurch away from the centre ground. A tack to the left could leave it out of power for decades, although there may be room for radical thinking on – for example – private sector remuneration. A lurch to the right (in an attempt to outflank the coalition) would be pointless. The leadership candidates have months to prepare for autumn conference, to think things through, and to stay calm.
* All Yorkshiremen boast about their heritage, given half a chance. Incidentally, Matthew Engel has noticed that the new cabinet has a higher-than-usual Yorkshire quotient. And yes – if there are any pedants out there – the constituency is more Vale of York than the moors.