What were the significant lessons from the Newport West by-election?

By Daniel Julian, Account Executive 

The residents of Newport West went to the polls yesterday and while the result might have been a foregone conclusion there are some significant lessons we can extrapolate.

Firstly, this by-election continued the trend of seeing a decreased turnout, which had been in the mid-60s at the last three times of asking. While this is to be expected, 37% was even lower than many had anticipated, a sign perhaps of politics overload given all the Brexit excitement in recent weeks, although the weather might also have had an effect in depressing turnout.

Secondly, the way the votes themselves were divvied up underlines the strength of the two major parties even at the half way stage of this Parliament. While the headline might be the decrease in both the Labour and Tory share of the vote and the relatively strong performance by UKIP, it is worth pointing out that just over 70% of those who bothered to vote opted for one of the two main parties – a figure in line with previous election results in the area. Only a couple of month ago the news was all about whether The Independent (which is now rebranding itself as Change UK as it prepares to launch as a proper political party) could break the mould and the two-party hegemony. Given the poor performance overall of the two main anti-Brexit parties, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, it is a worrying sign for anyone who wishes to go against the grain and change the make-up of British politics. However, it is worth pointing out though the relatively strong performance by Renew, one of the many centrist parties to emerge in the aftermath of the EU referendum with a strong anti-Brexit message which scored over 800 votes and about 3.5% of the vote in its first Parliamentary outing.

UKIP will be the happiest of the parties though, after almost doubling the amount of votes they received last time round. The party fielded former Tory MP for Tatton and poster boy for sleaze in the 1990s, Neil Hamilton, who, since joining UKIP, has enjoyed a bit of a revival, first by winning a seat in the Welsh Assembly and then taking over as party leader in Wales in September 2016. His performance last night suggests that, especially in strong Leave supporting areas there is appetite for a true Brexit party, which will encourage both UKIP but also Nigel Farage’s new venture – aptly named the Brexit Party – if the UK ends up holding European Parliamentary elections next month.

But what does this all mean for the state of the parties as we enter the next phase of the Brexit saga?

The most recent by-election prior to yesterday was held in the South London seat of Lewisham East in June 2018. While the Labour Party had achieved a remarkable result at the General Election the year before by receiving almost 68% of the vote, a swing against the party of 19% in a heavily Remain supporting area was seen by many as a sign that the precarious coalition Jeremy Corbyn was able to put together in 2017 might not hold for much longer.

Given the results last night, which showed an actual swing against Labour towards the Conservatives it might be further evidence that Labour’s electoral coalition of Remain supporters in metropolitan areas and Leave supporters in towns and outside of London might be creaking at the seams.

With another by-election looming, this time in a Labour-held marginal in Peterborough, we could see more of these divisions coming to the fore. This might explain why Jeremy Corbyn was so eager this week to meet with Theresa May to find a compromise Brexit solution. With both this by-election but also local government elections in England and, who knows, maybe even European elections on the horizon we will have a clearer idea as to whether Labour will be able to keep both sides of its odd electoral coalition together for long enough to achieve power.

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