The result of the Crewe by election was worse than Labourâ€™s efforts to spin it before the defeat. Even the Labour spin machine could not bring themselves to say the Conservatives needed a swing of over 20% to have a â€œgood nightâ€, and were suggesting the Conservative majority needed to be over 5000 to show progress. Well it was.
Labourâ€™s candidate made a dignified speech on hearing the result, sounding as if she wished to fight the seat again at the General Election. In her subsequent interview she showed she had not understood. She told us the Labour vote had stood up well: all that had happened was more Conservatives had come out to vote. My experience â€“ and indeed the experience of most others who went to Crewe and talked to people there â€“ was very different. Labour voters switched to the Conservatives in significant numbers. On a similar turnout to the General Election Labourâ€™s vote was well down.
The most remarkable thing about the election was the size of the turnout. Normally in a by election to a Parliament where the government has a large majority turnout falls, as voters do not think they can make any difference to the national situation by their vote. On this occasion voters wanted to send the government a big message that they are fed up with the way it has been running the country, so they voted in large numbers. They decided by a big margin that the Conservative candidate would make a good MP, and decided that only the Conservative party could defeat Labour. These are all worrying developments for a party in government that has survived so far by helping keep the opposition split between Lib Dem, UKIP, Green and others to make it more difficult for Conservatives to win, and by vilifying the Conservatives in crude and personal ways. On this occasion none of these strategies worked. Support for minor parties fell as people realised they needed to vote Conservative to change the ruling party in Crewe.
The issue today is what will Labour learn from all this â€“ and what will the Conservatives do next, based on this positive development for them?
If Labour is to â€œGet itâ€ as the new MP for Crewe would say, they need to understand both the message of the voters, and to appreciate the changing social and economic structure of a place like Crewe if they want to be in contention there in the future.
The message was simple to grasp, and the media have understood it. People feel far too squeezed. High food prices, surging petrol prices, high Council taxes, the ending of the 10p tax band and rising energy bills have left people feeling badly off. They now fear the family bills and are short of cash to pay for the basics for themselves. This affects people on incomes above the average with commitments, as well as hitting those on below average earnings especially hard. They understand that the government is not to blame for all of this, but they cannot stand the governmentâ€™s high tax and waste policy which the government could change. They do blame the government for the tax rip off at the pumps, for the Council taxes and the 10p band fiasco. They do understand that the government is making the squeeze on them all the tougher, because the government itself will not cut its claims on people when incomes are under pressure.
The changes in the constituency are more subtle, but in a way more important for future elections. I am pleased to say the big gap between north and south is notably closing on the new private estates of Crewe, let alone Nantwich. Out on the doorsteps yesterday in the suburbs of Crewe I could just have easily been out and about in my own southern constituency. I found many pleasant owner occupied homes lived in by house proud people who want to be able to do things for themselves. They put up with the manic round of by election leaflets and political visitors and gave me a friendly indication they had already voted or were about to when I called. Like my constituents, they expect government to be kind and generous to those in need, but to leave the many capable people with enough of their own money to go about their daily lives with an independent spirit. Far from worrying about Tory toffs, many wish to be upwardly mobile and see nothing wrong with people like their new MP being well educated and well spoken, wishing to devote their lives to public service. Prosperity is the death watch beetle in old Labourâ€™s timbers. It is the threat which led to Blairâ€™s Tory lite NU Labour image making. Prosperity damaged or spurned by a tax and waste Labour government will turn on that government and demand something better from the alternative party of government.
The Conservatives too can learn from this welcome change of the political climate. The new MP made a generous and inclusive acceptance speech, paying full tribute to the deceased Labour MP and pledging himself as he should to work for all the voters of his new constituency. Nor did he mince his words over what needs to be put right by the government. The Conservatives now can show they have learnt from the dreadful years of 1992-2005, by showing a passion for public service and a sane humility in victory. As more policy announcements are made in the long run up to the General Election, people will be watching carefully to see how the Conservatives can contain the public debt, gain much better value for money from each pound spent by government, and leave sufficient of the proceeds of growth for tax reductions. Technically it is not difficult to do all three, as the waste and undesirable spending is so large. Politically it is more difficult as there is still cynicism about politiciansâ€™ ability to do these things, and there will be endless Labour disinformation telling us that every pound they currently spend is well spent. The voters of Crewe have told us what they think about that! Therein lies the Conservatives opportunity to help make peopleâ€™s lives better. Conservative Councils can do that already on a modest scale. We look to them to help prove the case.