The Peterborough Chronicle. About that by-election

The Peterborough Chronicle. About that by-election

What to make of the result? There are lots of hot takes all over the internet.  So here’s a tepid take, with an assortment of observations all jumbled up in a heap.  Make of them what you will.

1) No one really had a handle on what was going on

The Brexit party got backed below 1.2 on Betfair to win the by-election.  They were heavy odds-on favourites, largely it seems off the back of their results in the EU elections. It’s all very well saying that their backers were far too enthusiastic but layers weren’t exactly all that much in evidence either. It turns out nobody knew anything. Remember that when reading all those hot takes. Remember it next time you’re betting too.

2) Especially not Nigel Farage

Nigel Farage turned up triumphantly for the count, only to slip out of a side door once it became apparent that his party had lost. That minor humiliation can be brushed off, but much more concerning for the Brexit party is that they did not have a handle on their own support. The Brexit party’s ground game needs a lot of work.

This is unsurprising for a new party. We saw this at the Newark by-election in 2014, where UKIP transparently had no idea where their voters were. In a first-past-the-post system, knowing who your voters are and getting them out is important.

3) Leave secured 60.9% of the vote in Peterborough in 2016 and only 51% of the vote in Peterborough in 2019

Hat tip to Matthew Goodwin for pointing this out, as linked to above. This implies a 10% swing from Leave to Remain if taken on a naive basis, implying a 58:42 Remain lead nationally at present. That is ahead of most current opinion polls, which show a smaller Remain lead.

Remain optimists will take this at face value and see this as evidence that Britain is turning its back on Brexit.  Leave optimists will argue that this reflects Labour’s superior ground game and the silent majority of voters break heavily in their favour. Or perhaps it is somewhere in the middle. Pick your preference.

4) Leave secured 60.9% of the vote in Peterborough in 2016 and the Brexit party secured 28.9% in 2019

That implies the Brexit party are tallying just under half of the Leave vote, which in turn implies that they are getting somewhere around the 24-25% mark nationally. However, in the special circumstances of a by-election, you would expect a party with momentum to do rather better than their actual polling as voters choose to send a message.  I’d knock quite a few percent off that notional national polling, given that.

5) But Peterborough was not, even though a strongly Leave-voting seat, particularly promising ground for the Brexit party

The excellent analysis by Chaminda Jayanetti linked to above shows that while the Brexit party did well among Leave voters across the country in the EU elections, it did less well in urban, ethnically diverse places and best in southern English suburbs and market towns. It is a party that appeals most of all to affluent reactionaries. They are not particularly in evidence in Peterborough.

The Brexit party are doing well, but their supporters are getting ahead of themselves. Success is performance minus anticipation. On that basis, this was a poor result for the Brexit party. They need to work on both halves of that equation.

6) It was a terrible night for the Conservatives

They have been eclipsed among Leave voters by the Brexit party. The chief mystery is who is voting for them at present. What is it that they have to offer to anyone? Don’t tweet me, please.

7) This was a really good result for Labour

The circumstances of the by-election were sub-optimal, to put it mildly. The previous MP had been ousted after being convicted of a serious criminal offence.  Their new candidate ran into trouble. They faced an opponent with their tails up after success in the EU elections. But they won.

Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters are crowing and they are right to do so. Yes, their vote share dropped but they increased their majority. It’s about relative performance not absolute performance and this by-election suggests that in some seats at least they are well-placed to benefit from a more fragmented electorate.

8) Reported candidate quality was once again an inverse predictor of success at the by-election

Lisa Forbes, the Labour candidate had odium poured on her for some unsavoury online activity and she had to agree to deepen her understanding of anti-Semitism. The Brexit party candidate received widespread acclaim as a local businessman made good. The Conservative candidate also got good reviews.

It seems that when parties stress the quality of the candidate they are often masking other weaknesses in their offering that are more important to the electorate. That’s something to remember in the future next time a party boasts of their excellent by-election candidate.

Alastair Meeks

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