Three lessons can be drawn from the by-elections yesterday (Thursday 23 February). Firstly, UKIP has gone down in flames. The party is over. In recent weeks northern Labour MPs like Frank Field or Dan Jarvis, as well as endless media commentators and academics who should know better, have announced that UKIP was about to take over Labour seats in northern England.

But UKIP has always been a one pony party. In European Parliament elections and the Brexit referendum, UKIP did well. But when it came to electing MPs to represent the broad range of interests and needs of voters, a one-trick party has no appeal.

Assuming a minimal political Brexit happens by the spring of 2019, there will be no more UKIP MEPs, no more staff and offices, no more fiddled EU party funding. Adieu, UKIP.

So the second lesson is that Prime Minister Theresa May, and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, can stop looking over their shoulder in terror at the sight of UKIP. The prime minister can start to reduce her endorsement for UKIP fellow travellers in the cabinet and amongst MPs. Instead, the economic impact of the UK being outside the single market and customs union, and so losing  work in the City and in exporting firms, will begin to hit home. Then Tory MPs can start to demand a constructive economic relationship with Europe in place of the UKIP-style hard Brexit.

In a speech to European socialists in London today Corbyn said: “Both (parliamentary) constituencies were let down by the establishment.” As if that was sufficient explanation for the humiliating loss of a traditional safe Labour seat in Cumbria. The plain fact is that Corbyn, like Michael Foot in the early 1980s when Labour last lost a safe seat to a government led by a Tory woman prime minister, is never going to be prime minister.

Precisely when Corbyn stands down and who replaces him will become key questions – but not yet. In politics you cannot beat somebody with nobody and for the time being there is no one rising from amongst Labour MPs with the impact and reach to be accepted as a leader and possible PM.

The third lesson to be drawn from the by-election is that, in the UK, single-issue political appeals fail. Labour tried to hold Copeland by focusing on the travails of the National Health Service. But voters wanted an all-round alternative and one that respected the hard work of local people in the nuclear industry. In Stoke, UKIP assumed that the Brexit vote of last June would waft them into the Commons. They lost too.

So May is now reinforced, but can she learn that the UKIP ideology of total Brexit amputation may not be where voters will be in two years’ time? Corbyn has been humiliated. Can he learn that he must speak for young England, for London, for all the people who have joined Labour who are not anti-European. They were horrified at Labour’s EU policy chiefs going into the same lobby as Tory and UKIP MPs to vote in favour of leaving the EU.  Corbyn is treating Brexit as a classic left-right fight. He claims he will defend British workers and poorer communities against the arrival of American multinationals who, he says,  will pillage the UK once we are fully out of Europe.

But Brexit is not a left-right issue so much as two ideas of Britain’s future. One is open to trade and people, engaged with our closest neighbours, and shaping 21st century Europe. The other represents a return to 1950s Britain, rejecting European cooperation and integration and dreaming of wonderful trade deals with former imperial possessions. This 1950s vision can be as tempting to the left as to the right.

But no one is speaking for young England, for Scotland, for the many in the second generation immigrant community, for the millions of Brits who are horrified at the xenophobia of the hard Brexit UKIP fellow travellers in the Commons. Corbyn today repeated his mantra “we must respect the result of the referendum” as if Labour always accepted the result of an election vote and gave up fighting for what it believed in thereafter.

The by-elections should be opening doors to new thinking on how to deal with Brexit policy issues in the critical months ahead. But both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn prefer their comfort blankets and the old thinking that will, in reality take Britain into dangerous and isolated waters.

by Denis MacShane | 24.02.2017

Denis MacShane is the former Minister of Europe. He is now a Senior Adviser at Avisa Partners, Brussels. 

Edited by Stewart Fleming

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