Nigel Farage’s Brexit party failed to elect its first MP when the Labour candidate won the Peterborough by-election.
The Brexit party’s candidate, Mike Greene, a former Tory-supporting businessman who appeared on Channel 4’s The Secret Millionaire, narrowly lost to Labour’s Lisa Forbes, who got 10,484 votes. She won the seat with a narrow majority of 683.
Jubilant Labour supporters cheered and chanted Forbes’ name as the announcement was made.
Greene came in second with 9,801 votes, Conservative candidate Paul Bristow came in third with 7,243 votes, and Liberal Democrat Beki Sellick came in fourth with 4,159 votes. Voter turnout was 48.4%.
The result was a bitter blow to Farage’s party, which had hoped to cause an upset. The Brexit party leader made a quiet entrance, kept a low profile, and made an even quieter exit.
Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme on Friday morning, Farage said that his party had lost out because it had been competing with the Conservative party for the votes of Brexit supporters.
“Like it or not, something very significant happened here last night,” he said.
“Now, the only reason the Brexit party wasn’t able to push a couple of hundred votes past Labour was because quite a lot of people still voted Conservative.
“There are now seats like this over the country where Conservative voters are going to start to realise, if you vote Conservative, you are going to finish up with a Corbyn government. And once that gets through, we’ll begin to see tactical voting.”
Forbes said: “The fact that the Brexit party has been rejected here in Peterborough shows that the politics of division will not win.
“It shows that the politics of hope can win, regardless of the odds.”
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said Forbes’ win demonstrated a rejection of Conservative austerity measures and “disastrous handling of Brexit.” In the EU referendum, 60.9% of Peterborough voters were in favour of leaving the European Union.
“In this key seat, the Conservatives have been pushed to the margins,” Corbyn said. “This result shows that in spite of the divisions and deadlock over Brexit, when it comes to a vote on the issues that directly affect people’s lives, Labour’s case for real change has strong support across the country.”
Forbes’ victory, however, is not without controversy.
During her campaign, she had been forced to apologise for appearing to endorse a social media post that said Theresa May had a “Zionist slave masters agenda”. Forbes had claimed that she had not seen the text but had liked the accompanying video, which showed children praying.
In an interview with Sky News after her win, Forbes was again asked about the incident.
“I’d like to reassure them [the Jewish community] that I have no issue with any community. I think anti-Semitism is abhorrent,” she said. “I actually liked a video of children praying about the atrocities that happened in New Zealand, and I hadn’t paid much attention to the text above it. I apologised for that and I’m really sorry.”
Forbes has vowed to undertake anti-Semitism awareness training, but during the campaign, the Jewish Labour Movement refused to campaign for her, and pressure group Labour Against Antisemitism said her election marked a “dark day for the Labour party”. They have already called for her to be suspended and said they will be lodging a formal complaint with the Labour party.
Euan Philipps, spokesperson for Labour Against Antisemitism, said: “The narrow victory by Lisa Forbes in the Peterborough by-election is a dark day for the Labour party. When evidence of Ms Forbes’ allegedly anti-Semitic views emerged last weekend, she should have been forced to stand down immediately, as urged by the Jewish Leadership Council and the Board of Deputies of British Jews. The Labour party’s only Jewish affiliate, the Jewish Labour Movement, also announced it would not be campaigning for Ms Forbes.
“Instead we witnessed the unedifying spectacle of dozens of Labour MPs – many of whom are moderates who had signed a letter of solidarity with the Jewish Labour Movement as recently as March – streaming up to Peterborough over the last few days to support a candidate who should have been taken off the ballot paper on Sunday.”
He added: “It appears that tribalism has trumped principle, and that the policy of zero tolerance for anti-Semitism has once again been abandoned by the Labour party.”
Pro-European campaign groups have said that Labour’s victory in Peterborough was the result of a “Remainer surge,” with those opposed to Brexit voting tactically for Labour to prevent the Brexit party from winning.
Best for Britain’s chief operations officer, Naomi Smith, said: “This result confirms what our poll predicted – that Labour’s fudged Brexit position will leave them vulnerable at the ballot box.
“This was a near-miss for Labour – who were saved by a rush of support from Remainers determined to deny a seat for the Brexit party. They should be thanking those pro-EU voters who have saved them.
“Peterborough has always been a marginal seat for Labour. Now, if it wants any chance of holding this seat convincingly, it must commit to a final say on Brexit.”
Labour MP Clive Lewis also said that Labour’s ambiguous Brexit position had risked the party’s loss of the Peterborough seat.
“This result was a real close shave for my party,” he said. “By failing to check the Brexit party in the EU elections, we’ve allowed Nigel Farage and his party to gain millions of pounds of EU MEP funding they can now throw into staff and a ground campaign game. They clearly haven’t been able to mobilise this new resource for this by-election to full effect. They will in the very near future, though, and that should concern us.”
Lewis added: “Let’s face the facts. We were saved by a surge in support from Remainers who wanted to keep the Brexit party out. Their help was invaluable at such a crucial time. Labour must unambiguously back a final say on Brexit as soon as possible.”
Labour’s success has also been credited to a well-executed ground campaign.
The Peterborough by-election was called after Labour MP Fiona Onasanya, who took office in 2017, was expelled from the party after she was convicted of lying to police about a speeding offence. She sat as an independent but was forced to stand down after thousands of her constituents backed a recall petition for her removal.
One Peterborough Labour source close to the campaign said the party had started working towards the election in January, and on the doorstep had framed the election around “so much more than Brexit”.
“Campaigns are not won in the final days and hours – as Farage now knows,” the source told BuzzFeed News. “The success in Peterborough was the result of an incredibly strong ground campaign, which framed the narrative in January as being about so much more than Brexit.
“This should not have been an election that Labour could win: 60% leave, an MP sent to prison for perverting the course of justice, and an insurgent Brexit party should have been a toxic cocktail.”
The source added: “The regional team successfully squeezed the Green and Lib Dem vote to within an inch of its life, and turnout in our core vote areas was at general election levels.”
Momentum estimated that it had mobilised nearly 1,000 activists to either knock on doors or make calls in the run-up to the Peterborough by-election, after contacting all of its 4,000 members and supporters who live within 40 miles of Peterborough to ask them via one-to-one phone calls to campaign in the by-election.
Laura Parker, Momentum’s national coordinator, said: “Momentum threw itself into this election with energy and determination, with nearly a thousand of our supporters getting involved, and absolutely paid off. This fantastic victory in difficult circumstances is down to the work of ordinary activists.
“Over the campaign, thousands of Momentum members knocked on doors and talked to voters in Peterborough, with more than 500 turning out for polling day and activists carpooling from across the country. Face-to-face conversations, coupled with a radical, positive message about how we will transform Britain, does win hearts and minds.”
Alex Wickham is a senior reporter with BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Alex Wickham at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hannah Al-Othman is a political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
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