Coming on top of a 20% lead in the local elections, a 20% lead in the opinion polls and the overthrow of Red Ken in London, the Tory victory in Crewe and Nantwich, which was the 165th most likely target seat for the next General Election, is a crushing blow for New Labor. If this were to be repeated in 2010 half the Cabinet would be expelled from Parliament and the Tories would have a massive majority.
How come New Labor, which hasn't lost a by-election to the Tories for 30 years and which has swept to victory in three successive elections, has come to so great a grief?
There were several factors at play. There was certainly a local dimension. The seat had been held for a very long time by Gwyneth Dunwoody. I remember the time when she was regarded as a far-Left firebrand, but of late she had morphed into the chairman of an important parliamentary committee, unafraid to confront the government over injustice and remarkably bipartisan in her pronouncements. It was her death that precipitated the by-election. Her daughter, Tamsin, had been selected as the Labor candidate to succeed her. The Tory candidate was Edward Timpson, son of multi-millionaire John Timpson. Dunwoody ran a campaign which attacked the Tory candidate as a rich, effete do-nothing, running on inherited money, educated at a posh private school, and driving around in a a gas-guzzling Bentley. (Bentleys are made at Crewe, by the way). She presented herself as a class-warrior, battling for the ordinary people against the toffs.
It was a particularly crass campaign. Edward Timpson certainly is the son of a rich man. But this was not inherited money. John Timpson started work repairing shoes and cutting keys and by dint of hard work built himself up into a national brand. His company is extremely generous to its employees and he and his wife have fostered 80 unwanted children in their home. Edward Timpson grew up with many of the most deprived children in the country as foster brothers and sisters. Labor falsely portrayed him as a top-hat-wearing waster who drove through working class settlements at 4 in the morning with his speaker system full on and trailing blue balloons from his SUV. When the voters found out that it was part of the Labor team in disguise doing this they were not best pleased.
Tamsin Dunwoody herself came across as a most unpleasant character. Aged about fifty and dressed as 30 with dyed blone hair and a skin wrinkled by too much sun and smoking she claimed to be an unmarried mother with 6 children. She was trying to identify with the locals. However, this is what her Wikipedia entry says:
Dunwoody was born in Totnes, Devon, the daughter of the late Labour MPs, Gwyneth Dunwoody, and Dr John Dunwoody. Through her mother she is the granddaughter of former Labour Party General Secretary, Morgan Phillips and Norah Phillips, Baroness Phillips. She was educated at the Grey Coat Hospital Church of England girls' school in Westminster and the University of Kent.Dunwoody was elected (under the name Tamsin Dunwoody-Kneafsey) as Assembly Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire from 2003 to 2007. In October 2005 she was appointed Deputy Minister for Environment, Planning and Countryside and Deputy Minister for Economic Development and Transport in the Welsh Assembly Government. She was defeated in the 2007 election by Conservative Party candidate Paul Davies.
Far from Timpson being heir to a dynasty, Dunwoody is daughter of two Labor MPs, granddaughter of one of the Labor grandees and a Baroness. She was educated at one of those top class schools in Westminster where Labor MPs send their children at our expense rather than pay for an improved education themselves. You don't get many children of Labor MPs at what they themselves call 'bog-standard comprehensives'.
But apart from the local effect, Labor nationally are in big trouble. Getting Tony Blair to be their leader was a masterstroke. Blair was personable, articulate, charming and remarkably self-effacing. In contrast John Major appeared old-fashioned, grey, verbose and had a strange way of pronouncing some of his vowels. Two years in to an economic recovery, the public had tired of the Tories. They remembered the end days of Mrs Thatcher rather than in her pomp and the sorry attempt to align the pound with the Euro prior to ditching our currency had been very unpopular. The young, smart, clean-cut (call me Tony) Blair seemed just what they wanted. With the economy thriving and a smart leader, Labor held power for 10 years. But Blair ran into Iraq, which was enough to unseat him.
Meanwhile, Gordon Brown had kept his head down for ten years. As Chancellor of the exchequer he had claimed the credit for a decade of economic success (though in fact the period of growth had started under Ken Clarke and had been built of China exporting deflation, allowing him to pursue public spending policies that would have been inflationary but for the Chinese factor). With Tony Blair as front man there was no need for Brown to show himself in public. indeed whenever Blair got into trouble he remembered an urgent appointment in Geneva or Davos or Bali. All the time though he coveted the top job, and when it was clear that Blair had to go - Iraq had become like the poll tax for Mrs Thatcher - it seemed natural for Labor to turn to Brown. He enjoyed a few months honeymoon period but then things started to go wrong. It is pointless to list them, but they have their genesis in decisions he took as Chancellor and what is more important is how he reacted to them. All politicians get undone by 'events' (as Harold Macmillan put it), but skillful leaders turn them to their advantage (as Margaret Thatcher did with the Falklands and the miners' strike). Brown turned out to be a ditherer. As the economy took a downward turn, he blamed the world economic factors. The public are not so stupid as to believe the good times were down to him but the bad times are somebody else's fault.
The Northern Rock fiasco was laid at his door, and the abolition of the 10p in the pound income tax band, which punished the 5.3 million poorest, was clearly his fault. His reaction to that, which was to give a tax rebate to 22 million while still hitting the million poorest demonstrated monumental incompetence in the eyes of the electorate.
There are plenty of other things to blame New Labor for - immigration, crime, MRSA, identity cards, 42 days detention without trial, food and fuel prices, mortgage famine, negative equity, car tax - and Iraq hasn't gone away.