I want to begin by saying that for those of you gloating about the Brexit Party not winning when they were widely forecast to do so, and that this somehow represents them being vanquished, I’d think again. People tend to think of by-elections as fertile ground for insurgent parties, but they actually reward parties with a larger and more organised activist base. The Eastleigh by-election in 2013 was a good example of this: the Lib Dems held the seat, staving off a UKIP surge, mostly by dint of being much more organised, having better data and a more experienced bunch of activists on the ground. Since they are a one-off in a single constituency, parties can throw a huge slice of their national activist base at the contest.
The fact that the Brexit Party could come within 700 votes of winning despite having started a few weeks ago and never fought a FPTP election before is telling of their future potential. Basically, if the Brexit Party get their shit together, they can probably win a lot of seats. Yes, they may not do and yes, this could be a momentum killer for them. But I wouldn’t count on it.
For Labour, they not only won, they won when the narrative was that they were going to lose. They also didn’t lose as many voters to the Lib Dems or Greens as feared, which is a huge positive. In normal times I’d say this was a stupendous result for them. Except it does several negative things for them. One, it means Corbyn is very safe again as opposed to mostly safe. Two, it vindicates the terrible Brexit strategy. “Look, it worked in Peterborough” will be the mantra from now on. There is now almost no way of changing Labour’s Brexit policy, which if taken into a general election, will be disastrous for them.
It was weirdly a good night for the Tories. That they could get over 20% of the vote and come within 3,000 of winning when they basically don’t have a leader and are at an extreme low point in terms of their national support tells them that their vote is stickier than imagined. Still, you had the local party organiser panicking in the wake of the result, saying that all MPs who don’t support no deal Brexit should be deselected, so there may still be no hope for the Conservative party anyhow.
It was a bad night for the Lib Dems and the Greens. Yes, the Lib Dems were never realistically going to win this one. But they did significantly worse than the national polls suggest they should have done, confirming that their new support is very soft. It also shows that while many Labour and Tory Remainers may well vote Lib Dem, at the moment they would do so for negative as opposed to positive reasons. In other words, they are protesting what they still see as their natural party because of a Brexit stance, not because they see something they actively like in the Lib Dems. This is a real warning to the Liberal Democrats not to be complacent – they must come up with reasons beyond Brexit for people to vote for the party, and soon.