Mike Smithson, known and loved by thousands of East Dunbartonshire residents as a keen letter-writing impartial Liberal Democrat election expert, surpassed himself the other day. After a parliamentary by-election in Newport West which saw the Tory vote plummet by 8%, Smithson's verdict in a Stormfront Lite headline was "Boost for May". What he meant was that there had been a technical swing from Labour to Tory because the Labour vote had fallen slightly further, but it seems rather heroic to claim a "boost" just because someone else is doing even worse than you are. Andrew Neil tried exactly the same game during the BBC's coverage of the vote, but for my money Labour's showing wasn't actually as bad as all that, or at least not in any way that could be considered unexpected. It's pretty common for the Labour vote to slump in low turnout by-elections when everyone knows (or think they know) the result in advance. OK, if this had been Tony Blair sweeping all before him in 1995 or 1996, there would have been a big swing to Labour, but we didn't need a by-election to tell us that Corbyn isn't in that sort of position. If there's a general election this year Labour will start with a credible chance, but they're certainly not the pre-anointed winners.
In any case, if it's supposed to be good for the Tories that their vote collapsed in Newport West but not by quite as much as Labour's, it's only reasonable to point out that the Britain-wide opinion polls tell the opposite story - both of the two main London parties are sharply down on where they were at the start of the year, but the Tories have been slipping much faster of late which by default has brought Labour back to more or less level-pegging. The latest YouGov poll is a prime example...
Conservatives 32% (-4)
Labour 31% (-2)
Liberal Democrats 12% (+1)
UKIP 7% (+3)
SNP / Plaid Cymru 6% (+1)
Brexit Party 5% (n/c)
Greens 4% (n/c)
Scottish subsample: SNP 48%, Conservatives 20%, Labour 18%, Liberal Democrats 5%, UKIP 3%, Brexit Party 3%, Greens 1%
The basement battle between the rump UKIP and Farage's new Brexit Party is genuinely fascinating. My guess is that if it was widely known that Farage and his closest colleagues have decamped to a new party, the vast bulk of the UKIP vote would follow them across, but instead we have a situation where a small group of obscure far-right politicians have quietly inherited a well-known political brand and are reaping the benefits of it. If the European elections go ahead (and it's overwhelmingly likely they will), the Brexit vote could well be split right down the middle. I know some people will say that doesn't really matter in a proportional representation election, but it absolutely does. In some electoral regions (including Scotland), it's likely that a split vote will leave both parties below the de facto threshold for representation. Hopefully by now David Coburn will have some alternative employment sorted out.
The usual health warning: no individual Scottish subsample should be taken too seriously. All the same, Scottish Labour must be a touch alarmed by just how frequently they've gone sub-20 recently.