The Westminster village has moved remarkably quickly to bury the parliamentary by-elections in Blaenau Gwent and Bromley & Chislehurst on Thursday of last week. That is because they contradict the official story about where British politics is going.
According to this official story, a familiar turn in the electoral cycle is taking place. We are at the fag-end of a Labour government and the pendulum is swinging back towards the Tories.
The logic of this situation is forcing both the main parties to fight over the centre ground. So the men who will be the contending party leaders at the next general election – Gordon Brown and David Cameron – are both mimicking Tony Blair.
Cameron is trying to dissociate the Tories from hard Thatcherism by going all green and touchy feely. Brown is steering hard right to avoid the accusation – damning in the Westminster village – that he’s an Old Labour throwback.
The latest stage in this campaign involved briefings last weekend saying that Brown favours allowing the police to hold terrorist suspects without charge for longer than 28 days.
The strategy rests on the assumption that party leaders can safely ditch traditional policies without losing the votes of their traditional bedrock support. Blair has been particularly crass in flaunting his contempt for the Labour base, in the belief that working people have nowhere else to go.
But last week’s by-elections show this assumption is false. In Blaenau Gwent, Old Labour rebels hung onto the House of Commons and Welsh Assembly seats held by their leader Peter Law, whose death trigged the by-elections.
The New Labour response to this humiliation beggared belief. The wretched Hazel Blears, Blair’s nominee as party chair, said the result was “coming in the right direction”. Some stiff in the Welsh cabinet said a “sympathy vote” had won Trish Law her late husband’s seat in the Welsh Assembly.
They don’t get it at all. The Blaenau Gwent constituency used to be called Ebbw Vale and was represented by Nye Bevan and Michael Foot. It is in the heartland of the Labour heartland.
The rebellion in the Blaenau Gwent Labour Party reflects the anger of working people whose communities were devastated by the destruction of the steel and coal industries, and who have been left to rot for the last nine years by what they thought was their government.
In leafy Bromley & Chislehurst the result was even worse for Labour. Its candidate was pushed into fourth place. But the Tories saw their massive majority in a safe seat cut to the bone. The Cameron bandwagon found itself caught in a left-right squeeze, challenged strongly by both the Liberal Democrats and UKIP.
These results don’t completely invalidate the official story. Labour is undoubtedly in very big trouble and Blair is now a huge political liability.
This truth clearly hasn’t penetrated the Downing Street bunker. Blair himself told his tame National Policy Forum at the weekend to “hold firm”. But even the most stupid and craven Labour backbencher must be able to do the sums now. If they don’t get rid of him soon, they will be toast.
It’s also undeniable that the Tories are consistently ahead in the polls. But what the Bromley result suggests is that this is more by default than because there is a big head of steam behind Cameron’s vacuous opportunism.
Independently of the shifts in the balance of power between them, both the big party machines are continuing to see their social base shrink. This means that spaces are opening up both between them and on their flanks for other parties to grow.
This can favour sinister forces on the far right such as the BNP and UKIP. It can also benefit the Lib Dems’ efforts to market themselves to disaffected Labour and Tory voters simultaneously.
But Blaenau Gwent shows that Respect’s breakthroughs in east London weren’t some strange parochial phenomenon. New Labour can be taken on and beaten from the left in the very core of the traditional white working class. This signals that we live now in a multi-party political world where, if we make the right moves, Respect will continue to flourish and grow.
Crises are on the horizon