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Friday, 14 January 2011

Old and Sad election reflections

Older readers will remember that, for some years in the last century, the BBC broadcast an intermittently funny weekly satirical radio show called Weekending. After the Truro by-election, which everyone will remember was in 1987 (many people can still recall exactly where they were when they first heard the news of who had won the Truro by-election, which was to memorable by-elections what the attempted shootings of Gerald Ford were to memorable political assassinations - that is, not very) - anyway, after the Truro by-election, Weekending did a very funny sketch about it. The Returning Officer announces the results, but instead of reading out each candidate's number of votes, followed by a cheer from supporters in the crowd, he reads out each party's reaction to the result. So it's "Smith, Gerald Roger (Labour) - we came third, but our vote has still risen (cheers from crowd)", in that very slow and precise voice that Returning Officers use when reading out numbers of votes. And so on for each party. Which actually worked as a joke about Truro, as all three parties really could claim to have won and lost simultaneously: the Liberals had held the seat but without spectacularly increasing their majority, the Tories had not gained the seat but their vote had held up (in a sign that they were about to win a landslide victory at the General Election) and Labour had upped their vote a bit in a seat where they remained a poor third.

Anyway, as one of the three people in the entire country to have watched BBC News' overnight coverage of the Old and Sad by-election, a few thoughts struck me. One is that by-elections are not a barometer of the political scene - by their very nature, they rarely reflect the weather. They can affect the weather, if a third party wins a by-election, develops a bandwagon effect and goes ahead in the polls for a while, but that's not an indication of what the weather actually is - it's something else. I first joined the Liberal Party in 1986. Since then, we have, newsflash, not won a General Election. We have, however, won supposedly spectactular by-elections in Greenwich in 1987, Eastbourne in 1990, Ribble Valley and Kincardine & Deeside in 1991, Newbury and Christchurch in 1993, Eastleigh in 1994, Littleborough & Saddleworth in 1995, Romsey in 2000, Brent East in 2003, Leicester South in 2004, Dunfermline & West Fife in 2006 - in other words, winining these supposedly extraordinary by-elections has actually become the norm for my party. Some by-elections come and go and are not well-remembered; others - many others - are out of the ordinary. The only times they reflect what is happening nationally is on those surprisingly rare occasions on which one or other of the Conservatives or Labour achieves a swing from the other in a straight two-party situtation, e.g. in Crewe & Nantwich not so long ago, or that one in Norwich. Although even both of those wrongly implied that the Conservatives were heading for victory, rather than a hung Parliament, at last year's General Election.

Given that Labour (to their credit) have not fallen apart since their General Election defeat (and since there are no Labour big-hitters who dissent from the Blair/Brown orthodoxy, that is hardly surprising - this is not the early 1980s, when several major Shadow Cabinet members wanted Labour to move substantially to the Left and there was an argument about it), and given that their arguably under-performing leader has not (yet) been a complete disaster, they are, I would suggest, on cruise control. They know that we are probably years away from an election. They know that they don't yet know what their policies will be in 2015 (or even what those policies will be on - 9/11 was not forecast, so who knows what might be on the policy agenda in four years time?). They even presumably know that many of today's Shadow Ministers, including Alan Johnson, will bow out in favour of new talent before the next election. In contrast to Blair in 97, this government is not enjoying a honeymoon, so the Opposition, if it avoids being very incompetent, can slip into the lead or level-pegging with the Conservatives, as happened at this stage in 1980, after Mrs Thatcher had taken power in 1979.

What matters are the underlying trends. And, in terms of those trends, I can truthfully say, with all due deference to the ghost of Weekending, that for the Lib Dems to hold their 32% of the vote, and actually slightly increase it, is not a bad result. It reminds me of situations in which Conservative governments have lost a by-election, but have been able to see from the result that they'll quite possibly do well at the actual General Election. That it is the result, in part, of tactical voting by Conservatives doesn't matter - except as a sign of what to possibly expect in Labour/Lib Dem marginals at the next General Election. If I was a Labour MP who had narrowly beaten the Lib Dems in May, with the Conservatives third, I'd be distinctly unamused at the prospect of Conservatives voting tactically for the Lib Dems to beat Labour in seats like this.

The new Labour MP's speech - I won't comment on her delivery, as that would be ungracious, but it was very badly written (she was very clearly reading it and has not yet learnt how to lift her head up often enough to disguise the fact that she is reading from a piece of paper). Labour really is now the Boring Party again. Mario Cuomo said that we campaign in poetry and govern in prose, but this speech was one dreary prose-poem (of the sort that Labour would probably wish to encourage with an Arts Council grant). And I wish I could think of something original to say about that bizarre scene at the count where Labour people gave their candidate flowers long before the result had actually been announced and there were speeches and lengthy applause, while the votes were still being counted. I very much doubt that it will swing a single vote away from Labour elsewhere and most people won't notice or care, but it was still somewhat odd and mistaken. As was her reference to the Government having "let down voters", or words to that effect. I would never call people "voters" - they don't, first and foremost, exist in their capacity as voters, and voting is not most people's definining activity. They are "people" (we call them "residents" in local election campaigns, but doesn't that make us sound as if we are all living in one vast care home?). Also of tangential interest was that I heard nobody make any reference to Michael Meacher, who was visibly present at the count as a long-standing, prominent Oldham MP. "There's Michael Meacher," the commentators would once have said on TV, given what a power in the land he was, perhaps feeling the need to explain to viewers why such a political star was milling around in Oldham. I remember reading Peter Preston's account of a Washington party at which George McGovern stood ignored. Which is not to willingly compare Michael Meacher to George McGovern, but it still got me thinking.

So by-elections come and by-elections go. My only experience of being at a Lib Dem Parliamentary by-election HQ on the night was several years ago, when there was too much junk food, too much neon lighting and too much of a feeling that we'd won the by-election despite travelling in the wrong direction over all. Rather as if you were looking for the North Sea, saw the English Channel and thought that you must be driving in the right direction if you were looking for the sea and had, indeed, seen the sea. That by-election was taken as a sign of great things to come in various other elections then pending, none of which, shall we say, resulted in my party's sweeping all before it. I am far happier now, in Lib Dem terms, then I was then. I am desperately aware of the serious economic situation facing the country and the deep impact that it is having on millions of people, but I am very happy with my party's response to that situation. As Nick Clegg put it in September:
There were some people, particularly around the height of the Iraq war, who gave up on the Labour Party and turned to the Liberal Democrats as a sort of left-wing conscience of the Labour Party. I totally understand that some of these people are not happy with what the Lib Dems are doing in coalition with the Conservatives. The Lib Dems never were and aren't a receptacle for left-wing dissatisfaction with the Labour Party. There is no future for that; there never was.
Well, I never was one of those people, nor was I very happy in politics at the time to which Nick Clegg alludes. I was waiting then for the Lib Dems to become more the sort of party that we are now - so this is a satisfying time for me politically. That is another reason that, for me, by-elections come and by-elections go, and my party remains in government after all those years in opposition - which is what matters, as our ministers are now finally able to implement many of our policies.

Another reason that I don't take them seriously as weather-vanes is that the only by-election that I was ever really involved in running was a council by-election that we won in 2005, and it proved a dismal indicator of what was going to happen next. Since the creation of the London Borough of Barnet in the 1960s, the Liberals and Lib Dems had never elected a single councillor in the constituency of Chipping Barnet. In 2005, just before Christmas (a notoriously difficult time to motivate people politically) we won a by-election in High Barnet, a ward that had previously been staunchly Conservative. We did it from third place, on a surprisingly high turnout, for a Christmas council by-election, of 30%, and we did it fairly comfortably (by the way, how many people in Oldham East & Saddleworth had already voted by post, long before the 'close, hand-to-hand combat' between Labour and the Lib Dems on polling day? I wonder). We had literally never won anything before in Chipping Barnet. This was only six months before the 2006 local elections and it happened in spite of a time of bad national publicity for the Lib Dems, shortly before Charles Kennedy resigned the leadership. Many people saw it as a harbinger of doom for the Conservatives in Barnet.

And then what happened in May? The Conservatives did not defend their vulnerable seats. No, they went on the offensive and gained other seats that they hadn't been defending (as well as holding the defensive ones). I was standing in High Barnet, and everyone kept telling me that they they didn't know who they were voting for, but they could tell me who they were not voting for, "and that's Tony Blair". In vain did I tell them that Mr Blair was not a candidate for the local council in High Barnet. Equally in vain did I tell them that the Tories had controlled the Council since 2002 and so were responsible for what the Council had been doing for four years. "No dear," said one High Barnet voter resident person, "It's not Conservative here. It's Andrew Dismore." He being the then Labour MP for Hendon, and nothing to do with Barnet Council.

Anyway, on a 50% turnout (higher than they got in Old and Sad - it's a shame if 48% is now considered a high turnout for a high-profile Parliamentary by-election), there was a roughly 50/50 split in votes between Tories and Lib Dems in High Barnet, with two Conservatives and one Lib Dem (Duncan Macdonald, the excellent councillor who'd won the by-election) getting in. This came at five in the morning after several hours in which we'd appeared to be ahead, with the two victorious Conservative candidates having gone home to drown what they wrongly thought were their sorrows - they had to be woken up and brought back to claim victory after all. I enjoyed all of this immensely despite being defeated (with 2,187 votes...), but it's a sign of how by-elections don't necessarily foretell the future.

One thing that annoyed me last night was Laura Kuennsberg constantly needling Labour about how they apparently hadn't focused enough on local issues in Old and Sad. But this was not a local election. It was an election to choose the constituency's representative in our national Parliament, which deals with national and international issues. Any candidate who claimed that, as an MP, they would have powers to solve local problems, is heading in the direction of implying something that is not true. Many years ago, one Parliamentary by-election was won by a candidate who claimed that, if elected as the local MP, priority number one would be to "sort out the council" (whatever that means). The candidate in question was not a local councillor; nor was the council even controlled by the same party as the candidate (I guess that was rather the point). Years later, the council concerned has yet to be transformed magically by a critical MP into a perfect provider of services - it's just nonsense, and it's part of what generates the cynicism that often surrounds politics.

So, congratulations to Debbie Abrahams on winning. When Dudley Fishburn won the Kensington by-election in 1988, he said that he was looking forward to henceforth disappearing into obscurity (he took memories of the by-election with him). He was told off for saying that, but what he meant, since he'd been an MP before, is that he'd been under the spotlight during the by-election campaign and now just wanted to get to work as an averagely unknown MP, with no interest in stardom. He chose obscurity, unlike the many by-election winners who arrive in the Commons and find that obscurity chooses them. I won't speculate as to Ms Abrahams' fate in this regard.

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