So there we have it – after all the years of horrific abuse in Rotherham, after all the incompetence and looking the other way by the town’s Labour establishment, even after the resignation of the PCC who admitted some “responsibility”, the voters of South Yorkshire have passed their verdict. Or rather, 85 per cent of them have chosen not to pass one and the majority of the remainder voted to elect another Labour candidate.
What to make of the result?
- News of Labour’s demise is greatly exaggerated. It’s true that the Opposition’s traditional core vote is breaking down – both as a result of Miliband’s flailing leadership and of wider trends (trends that affect the Conservatives in the same way). But to hear some people talk in recent weeks you’d assume the game was basically up. This result showed that in plenty of Labour heartlands that willingness to vote for the party regardless of the circumstances still persists. That effect is obviously more powerful when turnouts are very low.
- Not voting still isn’t an effective protest. Anyone in the 85 per cent who didn’t turn out who tells themself that staying away was a blow against politicians/political parties/Westminster/’the system’ should take a close look at the outcome of their decision. The establishment which ran South Yorkshire during the abuse scandal is still in control – indeed, they’re in good spirits. If they’ve anyone to thank for their position it’s the non-voting majority.
- Sometimes UKIP’s spin is just that – spin. For weeks we’ve heard that Farage’s party were confident of victory in South Yorkshire – and they were widely taken at their word in a way that other parties wouldn’t have been. As it was, they didn’t even win the first preference ballot in Rotherham itself, never mind the rest of the PCC constituency. Maybe a little more media scepticism of their bullishness would be healthy?
- The ‘people’s army’ still needs good candidates in order to win. Looking at the polls, we’re certainly at a stage at which anyone standing under the UKIP banner will pick up a few thousand votes (incidentally, this is why their private reassurances that they “won’t work too hard” against Better Off Out MPs are in no way reassuring). But to actually get over the finishing line in a large election takes more than just their national brand – they need the right candidate, too. Jack Clarkson, the man they put up to be their outsider breaking into the system, was a South Yorkshire police officer for 30 years – not exactly fitting the message.
- Labour’s postal vote machine is a thing to be reckoned with. It’s reported that staggering proportions of the by-election votes were cast by post. In Doncaster, 77 per cent of them came in that way. Even leaving aside the ways in which the system is open to corruption, the Labour Party have a well-developed machine aimed at getting the postal votes in early. That’s the best way for them to protect their core vote from being seduced by others during the course of a campaign. This isn’t isolated to South Yorkshire – in a variety of northern councils I’ve heard reports of exactly the same industrial process, with exactly the same impact. That’ll only grow between now and the General Election.
- Bookies can be wrong. It’s common for people to treat the betting markets as indefatigable predictors of elections – in this case, they were flat wrong about the outcome. Of course in fact they’re just a monetary expression of the wisdom of crowds – the fact an investment’s involved certainly sharpens the mind for some punters, and there are those who are genuine experts, but there’s still just a man behind that curtain. They aren’t wizards.
- Police and Crime Commissioners are still in trouble. I supported the creation of PCCs, and I still support the posts now, but the continued low turnout is an increasingly serious problem. Much of that goes back to the cock-ups made when they were first launched, with elections undermined by poor promotion and even worse timing. If the appalling events in Rotherham aren’t enough to overcome the electorate’s collective shrug, what is? I suspect the next full PCC elections will see a higher turnout, because they will take place at the same time as the 2016 local elections – but that’s if they survive that long.
- Up next is Rochester. Labour are already gleefully saying that this result shows they can beat UKIP, and pointing to Rochester to ask if the Conservatives can do the same.