Nick Robinson, along with many other analysts, was caught off-guard yesterday: convinced that all the main parties would suffer for the expenses scandal, he was surprised by the scale of the Tory swing. In truth, though, it was in cause if not effect a story similar to the European elections results. Labour voters simply stayed at home compared with the general election four years ago, with the party losing seven out of ten of its 2005 voters. The Tories, too, lost votes – but only one in ten. Hidden behind these numbers are no doubt some defections from Labour to Conservative, but the fall in turn-out – from 2005’s 61% to 2009’s 45% – and the relatively poor performance of the Lib Dems and the Greens does suggest that the Labour vote simply stayed home.
On the basis of these results, the Tories will win the next election with a majority of more than 200 seats. Of course, these results won’t be replicated next year; yet Labour’s supine acceptance of a defeat of this scale – no raging, no plotting, no gasps of despair – remains staggering. In yesterday’s Guardian, Martin Kettle painted a picture of a fatalistic party: “Modern British history offers no comparable example of a party waiting with such apparent indifference for its execution by the voters.” The usual voices on the left continue to argue that this is a matter of not making a good case, but there seems to be something more rotten in the party’s heart than a mere inability to communicate. Ed Balls does a creditable job of making those cases in an interview with the Telegraph today – but why should anyone listen to a party which has otherwise given up?
Norwich North was 162nd on the Tories’ list of target seats; Neil Stockley points out that there is nowhere for Labour to hide. This was undoubtedly a by-election held in unusual circumstances, but Charles Clarke is wrong in the Independent today to blame the entire ruling class for the result: he is grinding his usual axe, but the blow has fallen squarely on his own exhausted party. John Rentoul and Steve Richards disagree about the implications of this for Gordon Brown, but for his party it all amounts to the same thing: unless it gets some fire in its belly, there is nothing more to be done.
Yet a victory based on a collapse in the opponents’ vote is surely not what the Tories would have hoped for. Their position in Norwich would have been much less commanding had the Labour vote at all held. Charles Moore’s unusually excellent article in today’s Telegraph holds out some hope for Labour (though it is in the shape of, er, Peter Mandelson), but is more concerned with how David Cameron, whom no one can argue has not played his hand very well indeed, can take a great opposition and make it into a resilient governing force. As long as Labour play the part of the Eeyore of UK politics, this will be its major question – and that can only quicken their self-propelled slide into irrelevance.