Category Archives: United Kingdom
Chris Terry has contributed this excellent guest post on the Newark by-election in the UK, held on June 5. Chris is a Research Officer for the Electoral Reform Society and you can follow him on Twitter here.
Following very quickly on from the European and local elections on the 22nd of May, the 5th of June saw a UK parliamentary by-election in the seat of Newark. For those who wish to read the wider UK political context, might I recommend my recent blog post about the local and European elections.
Newark covers part of rural Nottinghamshire, in the East Midlands. The largest settlement is the eponymous Newark-on-Trent, a market town in Nottinghamshire, with a population of around 26,000. Historically a local centre for the wool and cloth trade, Newark has transformed into a commuter belt town predominantly for Nottingham but also partially for urban behemoth London (which is a little more than an hour away by train). It is a prosperous town, and overwhelmingly white British town. The only other town in the constituency is Southwell, with a population of almost 7,000. The rest of the seat is very rural, with villages, farms and forest covering the bulk of the constituency. Sherwood Forest, of Robin Food fame, is in the neighbouring Sherwood constituency.
Newark is a safe Conservative constituency. The seat was Labour held between 1950 (one of the few Labour gains that year) and 1979, but never with particularly sizeable majorities. Under Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative governments the seat became a Tory safe seat and they won more than 50% of the vote between 1983 and 1992. The seat was lost to Labour, however, in the landslide defeat of 1997, a demonstration of the massive Labour wave of that year.
The new MP, Fiona Jones, became the first MP in British history to be disqualified from the House of Commons under the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Act of 1883, after allegations of electoral fraud, her conviction was quickly overturned, but Newark was one of the nine Conservative gains in 2001, a generally appalling year for the party as it failed to unwind the Blair landslide of ’97. Jones later attempted to sue Nottinghamshire Police but her case failed, leaving her with legal bills of £45,000. She later claimed that a government minister had offered her sex in exchange for a promotion. Whatever the truth of these claims she was shunned by colleagues after her return to parliament and fell into alcoholism. She lost her seat in 2001. She was found dead in her home by her husband surrounded by 15 vodka bottles in 2007.
Since 2001, Newark’s MP had been Patrick Mercer, a former Army colonel who was given an OBE for his tour of duty in Yugoslavia. He briefly turned his hand to journalism after he left the military. Upon his election Mercer had experienced an initially dizzying rise through the Conservative Party ranks, serving as a Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Shadow Defence Secretary and, then, as Shadow Minister for Homeland Security soon after his election. Mercer was on the right of the Conservative Party, he backed right-wing candidates Iain Duncan Smith (who won in 2001) and David Davis (who lost in 2005) for leader of his party.
Mercer’s politics and brash style meant that he was not a particularly good match for the modernising wing of the party which took control under David Cameron from 2005. However he was allowed to keep his post in the Shadow frontbench until 2007 when he made public comments about ‘idle and useless’ ethnic minority soldiers who he said were using racism as a ‘cover’. While Cameron tries to run a party which includes those from across its length and breadth he is noticeably less forgiving to those outside his own modernising faction if he perceives that they have failed him, and Mercer was permanently relegated to the backbenches.
Relations no doubt soured further when, in November 2011, Mercer was taped making disparaging remarks about Cameron including referring to him as the “worst politician in British history since William Gladstone” and predicting that Cameron would be ousted by his own MPs in 2012.
Mercer was implicated in a scandal in May 2013. Mercer was investigated by the Daily Telegraph and the BBC’s Panorama series who demonstrated that he took payment of £4,000 from undercover reporters supposedly lobbying on behalf of the military regime of Fiji. He subsequently resigned from the Conservative Party and sat as an Independent. His motor mouth once again got him in trouble as he told a story about meeting a young Israeli soldier to whom he supposedly said “You don’t look like a soldier to me, you look like a bloody Jew.” His behaviour was investigated by the Commons Standards Committee.
The Standards Committee reported on the 1st of May this year. It found that he had deliberately avoided the rules, and failed to declare a relevant interest. Suspension from the Commons was recommended but with less than a year to an election which he was not planning on contesting anyway, Mercer decided to resign his seat, taking the position as Crown Steward of the Chiltern Hundreds (technically MPs cannot resign from the Commons, but a legal incompatibility exists between royal positions and being a member of parliament, hence giving meaningless royal positions to MPs is a time honoured way of facilitating resignation).
The by-election was scheduled too late for it to be held alongside Britain’s local and European elections, and so was scheduled for June the 5th, two weeks later.
The result in 2010 was:
Patrick Mercer (Conservative) 53.9%
Ian Campbell (Labour) 22.3%
Pauline Jenkins (Liberal Democrat) 20.0%
Rev Major Tom Irvine (UKIP) 3.8%
The Conservative majority was 16,152 (31.5%) and turnout was 71.4%, much higher than the nationwide turnout of 65.1%.
Under Mercer, the seat had become one of the safest Conservative seats in the country, the 55th safest seat for the party.
As has often been the case in recent by-elections in the UK, the big question of the campaign, nonetheless, was how UKIP would do. Despite conclusive evidence that UKIP’s base is predominantly made up of poorer ‘left behind’ voters which draws support from both Labour and the Conservatives, parts of the media insist on viewing it as the right-wing of the Conservative Party in rebellion. The announcement of the by-election resulted in a frenzy of speculation that the party’s leader, Nigel Farage would stand, with Farage quickly denying he had any plans to.
The party instead selected Roger Helmer, one of its East Midland MEPs. Helmer, a former business executive, was actually elected as a Conservative MEP at the 1999, 2004, and 2009 elections. Helmer had always been an outspoken Tory even as the party was at its most right-wing during its wilderness years between 1997 and 2005. In 2005 he was suspended from the Conservative group and the EPP-ED in the European Parliament after voting to censure the European Commission and criticising the party’s lead MEP, Timothy Kirkhope. He rejoined the Tories in 2006 but remained outside the EPP-ED group.
Helmer, is, naturally, extremely Eurosceptic, but also holds views extremely critical of anthropocentric climate change, which he refers to as ‘climate-alarmism’. He has also previously suggested that women had some responsibility if they were date raped and that homophobia “is merely a propaganda device” and does not exist. He opposed same-sex marriage, labelling it a “grotesque subversion of a universal human right”. However, Farage claims that Helmer has since “relaxed” his views about homosexuality.
Helmer has always claimed that his views are simply those of a typical Conservative Party activist.
Helmer announced his resignation from the European Parliament in 2011, citing disillusionment with the direction of his party under Cameron. Helmer expected to be succeeded by Rupert Matthews, who was next in line for a seat, but media reports about Matthews led to Helmer delaying his resignation. Media reports focused on Matthews career as an expert on the paranormal. He claims to have written over 200 books on the paranormal. Another book published by his company on political correctness appeared to feature golliwog dolls on the cover, widely considered to be racist in the UK. The party thus seemed to desire to avoid Matthews. Hence, Helmer defected to UKIP instead.
UKIP’s campaign was, as is becoming the norm, fairly professional. The party has very quickly gained a fairly complex understanding of the ground campaign. During the by-election an interview with Helmer was printed in the Mail on Sunday which purportedly stated that Helmer endorsed providing ‘gay cures’ on the NHS. Helmer accused the MoS of “deliberate, defamatory lies”, stating that he never said such things.
Speculation grew about UKIP’s chances when UKIP topped the poll in the Newark and Sherwood council area in the European elections, beating the Tories by almost 500 votes. Yet it should be remembered both that Newark and Sherwood covers a much wider area than just the Newark constituency and that there are different factors of a European Parliament election which tend to favour UKIP (higher turnout amongst UKIP’s base and strategic ‘single-issue’ defectors who vote for UKIP solely in European elections to register their opposition to the EU).
The Conservatives selected Robert Jenrick, a 32 year old former solicitor who was a manager at the world famous Christie’s auction house. He had contested Newcastle-under-Lyme for the Conservatives in 2010. Jenrick was attacked by Helmer on the campaign trail as an out of touch millionaire with multiple homes. Jenrick stated that having three homes “doesn’t mean that I don’t know about life on the breadline”, and the Conservatives sought to present Jenrick as a ‘self-made man’. Jenrick had no prior connection to the seat before his selection, though he is from the Midlands, coming from Wolverhampton. It should be noted that Helmer is not a Newark native either, though he lives nearby.
The Conservatives poured resources into Newark with cabinet ministers making frequent trips to the constituency and the party making the most of its new ‘Team 2015’ infrastructure. Losing Newark would be a great blow to the party especially coming off a respectable local and European election performance.
Labour selected Michael Payne, a Nottinghamshire councillor based in Gedling, to the West of Newark. While the party has held the seat before no one seriously expected Labour to win it this time around. Labour’s win of the seat in 1997 represents a high watermark of Labour Party fortunes, and even the most optimistic Labour supporter would agree that a 1997 election landslide is far from on the cards. Labour’s aim was predominantly to maintain a sense of momentum, therefore.
Former by-election masters, the Lib Dems, nominated David Watts, a councillor for Broxtowe on the other side of Nottinghamshire. While the party won 20% of the vote in 2010 this represents their height in the seat since 1983. The party has little infrastructure on the ground and only holds 3 councillors in the seat. Its aim, if any, was to hold its deposit (a party’s £500 deposit is returned if it wins more than 5% of the vote).
The Greens nominated David Kirwan. Two independents stood, Paul Baggaley, standing on a highly localist ‘save Newark hospital’ platform, and Andy Hayes, standing on a disabled rights platform. Reverend Dick Rodgers of the tiny Christian party The Common Good stood with the ballot descriptor ‘Stop Commercial Banks Owning Britain’s Money’. The final serious candidate was Lee Woods of the ‘Patriotic Socialist Party’.
Two joke candidates stood. Nick the Flying Brick of the Official Monster Raving Looney Party is their Treasurer and their Shadow Minister for the Abolition of Gravity. His policies include making fishing a spectator sport by introducing piranhas into the local river, developing Newark castle into an intergalactic space port, and, naturally, abolition of the laws of gravity. Nick claims to have a ‘vendetta’ against gravity due to injury in a paragliding accident which he says was caused by gravity.
The other joke candidate was David Bishop, standing as ‘Bus Pass Elvis’. Bishop’s manifesto included a mix of joke and serious policies, including legalisation of brothels, with a discount for OAPs, students and the disabled, sending foreign pets back to their original country and environmentalist/animal rights policies such as stopping the importing of endangered species. Bus Pass Elvis also promised to “save the Antarctic, save the penguins and save Roger Helmer from being eaten by a polar bear”. Bishop has been a perennial candidate in British elections since standing against the disgraced former Tory MP, Neil Hamilton in 1997 under the name ‘Lord Biro vs. the Scallywag Tories’ but has received recent attention after he beat the Lib Dems in a council by-election.
Three polls were taken during the campaign, two by Survation, and one by former Tory treasurer turned quasi-professional psephologist, Lord Ashcroft. The first Survation poll was taken on the 27th-28th of May and showed Conservatives 36%, UKIP 28%, Labour 27% and Lib Dems 5%. Lord Ashcroft’s poll was taken between the 27th and the 1st of June. It had a larger sample (1,000 vs. 600) and showed Conservatives 42%, UKIP 27%, Labour 20%, Lib Dems 6%. The second Survation, and final poll full stop, was taken between the 2nd and 3rd of June, and showed 42% Conservative, 27% UKIP, 22% Labour, 4% Lib Dem.
Robert Jenrick (Conservative) 45.0% (-8.9%)
Roger Helmer (UKIP) 25.9% (+22.1%)
Michael Payne (Labour) 17.7% (-4.7%)
Paul Baggaley (Independent) 4.9%
David Kirwan (Green Party) 2.7%
David Watts (Liberal Democrats) 2.6% (-17.4%)
Nick the Flying Brick (Monster Raving Loony) 0.4%
Andy Hayes (Independent) 0.3%
David Bishop (Bus Pass Elvis) 0.2%
Reverend Dick Rodgers (Common Good) 0.2%
Lee Waters (Patriotic Socialist Party) 0.0%
The Conservative majority is 7,403 (19.1%) and turnout was a very high 52.8%, strong for a by-election, especially one held so close to the May election.
The by-election was a solid result for the Conservatives. Their candidate won a sizeable majority. While this is one of the party’s safest seats it is good for them to be seen to have performed strongly against UKIP in a straight fight.
The party has traditionally been very bad at by-election campaigns, and by-elections in the UK tend to be sombre affairs for governing parties. As the Conservatives point out, this is the first time they have won a by-election in government in 25 years. In fairness, that is largely out of luck. The party had been out of government for 13 years before 2010, and the period prior to 1997 had seen a long and drawn out series of by-election losses as the former Conservative government was extremely unpopular.
On the other hand, the party has had the fortune of seeing only one of its seats fall to a by-election since 2010 – Corby, a marginal seat which has tended to lean more Labour than Conservative and which had a thin majority of less than 2,000.
Nonetheless, the party was widely expected to lose more of the vote than it did, and a high turnout and a suggestion from the polls that it gained support closer to the election suggest that it ran a solid campaign.
UKIP performed less well than they hoped. The party did not appear to seriously expect to win Newark but it did expect to beat the record it set in Eastleigh in terms of a by-election performance. Instead, it will have to make do with second best at 25.9%. This has led some to conclude that UKIP has reached is ceiling, at least for the time being. Yet Newark is profoundly unfriendly ground for UKIP. Right-wing it may be, but it is very prosperous and does not have particularly high inward migration. Newark is not natural ground for UKIP, unlike the string of seats along the East Coast that UKIP ‘won’ in the local elections in 2013 and 2014 local elections.
It is hard to know whether the candidature of Helmer helped or hindered the party, in a sense it showed the public its most easily caricatured face. Yet, Helmer, as one of the more identifiably ‘Tory’ components of the UKIP machine may retain something of an appeal in the Conservative safe seat. In the absence of an exit poll it really is difficult to impossible to know.
Labour suffered a stinging rebuke. To lose support at this time is not something that should be happening to the party. The party ran a low-level campaign; understandably, as this was a seat it was unlikely to win. There may be an element of strategic voting at play (Labour/UKIP swing voters voting UKIP to keep the Tories out, and Labour/Tory vice versa?). Certainly the party’s stronger result in polls may suggest that the party was squeezed at the last minute. The party certainly cannot blame low turnout!
While the party never expected to win the seat, and almost everyone expected it to come third, no one really expected it to lose support from 2010. Still, it is difficult to translate a single by-election into national results and this may just be a freak occurrence. A negative sign it may be, but it is important not to over-read such things.
The Lib Dems have suffered yet another punishing rebuke at the ballot box. Winning just 2.6% of the vote the party went from third to sixth. It not only lost its deposit, but lost to an independent and the Greens (who did not stand a candidate in 2010!). 2.6% of the vote represents a record low for the Lib Dems in a post-war by-election. What must really hurt is that the party is not utterly without infrastructure and support in the seat, unlike, say, Barnsley Central or other constituencies where it has lost its deposit since 2010. The party has blamed tactical voting for its failure.
Anecdotal evidence from the ground does seem to suggest that some Lib Dem voters did indeed vote Conservative just to keep UKIP out. One of the effects of UKIP’s rise has been to make it more visible. Many voters see in UKIP a radical new saviour, and the party’s support has grown, but polls also show that UKIP has never been seen as negatively before. Around 40% of Brits see UKIP as racist. In addition to support, exposure has brought visceral dislike, and this may be the first sign of a UKIP backlash with liberally minded voters seeing the Tories as preferable and voting accordingly to keep them out.
For the Lib Dems it is also worth remembering that the party is polling around 10% at the moment. If it is collapsing from 20% to less than 3% in seats like Newark, that lays extra credibility to the claim that the party can rely on core areas to return MPs in 2015. That 10% of the vote must be somewhere and if it is geographically concentrated then hope remains for the party under Britain’s First Past the Post system.
Chris Terry has contributed this excellent guest post on the recent local and European elections in Great Britain. Chris is a Research Officer for the Electoral Reform Society and you can follow him on Twitter here.
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland held local elections on the 22nd of May. As Northern Ireland has an entirely separate party and electoral system, it shall be dealt with separately.
Since 2010 the UK has been ruled by its first coalition government since the end of World War II between the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats.
The 2010 election put an end to thirteen years of Labour governance following the landslide of 1997. Thirteen years in government had taken their toll on the party, as had the financial crisis and strategic mistakes by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who had taken over from Tony Blair in 2007.
However, the Conservative Party suffered from image as an out of touch party for the rich which did not understand the lives of ordinary Britons and toxicity amongst multiple demographics including ethnic minorities, public sector workers, the Scottish and the young. The party also suffered from the cruel effects of Britain’s First Past the Post system due to its highly inefficient vote spread.
The election had been seemingly blown open by the performance of the unknown leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, in the first Prime Ministerial debate in UK history. This unleashed ‘Cleggmania’ as the Lib Dems climbed to first in some polls. In reality Cleggmania was overblown and overstated, and mostly based on a large pool of don’t knows drifting into being very soft Lib Dems in polls. It began to dissipate by polling day and though the Lib Dems achieved 23.0% a vote, their best popular vote since 1983, they lost six seats.
The Conservatives gained almost 100 seats, but their 306 left them sort of the 326 needed for a majority in the UK. Britain was thus treated to the sight of coalition negotiations. While most of Britain’s European cousins view this as a norm post-election, this was entirely new to the British and journalists, politicians and academics rushed around trying to explain the phenomenon.
The final deal saw Clegg become Deputy Prime Minister in a coalition led by the Conservative Party’s David Cameron, an Eton educated former PR man and Treasury special adviser with aristocratic connections who many Brits view as the very personification of the British elite.
The new government had to deal with a yawning budget deficit of more than 10% of GDP, though Britain did not face the same problems as other Western nations regarding its ability to pay its debts. Nonetheless the government implemented an austerity agenda.
This pushed the Liberal Democrats into agreeing to some policies which they had specifically campaigned against in the 2010 election. Most infamously the party agreed to the trebling of the cap for university tuition fees from £3,000 to £9,000 a year (the system acts something like a tax, however, with no payback before you earn above £21,000 pa, very low interest rates and debts written off 30 years after they are taken out if not fully repaid). Abolition of university tuition fees had long been one of the Lib Dems’ most recognisable policies, and the party’s MPs and candidates had signed a pledge organised by the National Union of Students to vote against any rise in tuition fees.
During Labour’s years in opposition the Lib Dems had cultivated a young, academic, left-liberal base based on their opposition to the war in Iraq and left-leaning policies under Charles Kennedy. While Clegg had always intended to take the party to the centre, the party retained a strong left-leaning vote which had, in many cases, rejected Labour on the basis of insufficient leftism. To such voters, the party’s coalition with the Conservatives was anathema.
The party also found its traditional campaign strategy somewhat blunted. Since the 1960s move to ‘community politics’ the Lib Dems have focused on a localist form of politics, with individual Lib Dem MPs pointing left or right depending on the constituency and adopting strongly localist campaigns. The Lib Dem mantra ‘where we work we win’ attests to a traditional belief in the party that there is no obstacle which can stop a determined local party as long as it pounds the pavements, leaflets relentlessly and provides excellent constituency service. Yet the party’s national exposure in government gave it a national profile and not a positive one, with Clegg moving from the most popular politician in the country to the least in less than a month.
The Lib Dems have been devastated in successive waves of poor election results, though the signs are that the party performs much better in areas where they have incumbent MPs, where the party’s traditional strengths of solid constituency representatives work in their favour.
Labour followed the election with a leadership race, which pitted two former ministers and brothers, David Miliband, the former foreign minister, and Ed Miliband, the former Energy and Climate Change minister against one another. The fight took on extra potency as David had been a key aide and ally of Tony Blair, and Ed had been one of a pair of Gordon Brown’s most trusted advisors with Ed Balls, another prominent minister. Hence the two had been on opposite sides in the often extremely volatile relationship between the two former Prime Ministers.
To the surprise of many, Ed narrowly won the leadership race albeit on the votes of the trade union section of Labour’s complex leadership election electoral college (with David winning MPs and party members).
Ed represented a clearer break with the past, wanting to take the party in a more clearly left-leaning direction. He almost immediately apologised for the Iraq War, for instance. The Conservatives quickly attempted to brand Ed as ‘Red Ed’. However research found that voters found Miliband not to be so much a scary 1970s socialist, as the Conservatives had hoped, but just rather ‘weird’, due to poor presentation on his part.
Ed, is the son of a famed Marxist academic, Ralph Miliband, and who therefore, grew up in a home which was at the very nexus of the British intellectual leftist elite, with frequent visitors such as the academic Tariq Aziz and the famed radical left Labour MP Tony Benn (who sadly passed away earlier this year). He took a sabbatical from politics to teach at Harvard in the early 2000s. He thus affects an academic, some critics say ‘geeky’ persona. He is unusually interested in ideas for a modern day politician, and is known for his series of ‘gurus’, often academics such as the American philosopher Michael Sandel, or the sociologist Maurice Glasman.
Miliband’s instincts tend towards a metropolitan kind of leftism, but he has also taken on some of the issues of Glasman’s ‘Blue Labour’ ideas which posits a more socially conservative Labourism which rejects the managerialism of traditional British Fabian socialism. Blue Labour embraces a more conservative stance on immigration, crime and Europe, but prefers a more continental style of corporatist economics to markets. It is localist and vaguely anti-statist.
Realising that his party would be forced into austerity measures in government, Miliband has come to embrace more state interference in markets, with policies such as the introduction of rent controls and a forced price freeze on energy prices to undercut what Miliband consistently refers to as a ‘cost of living crisis’.
Conditions since 2010 have provided perfect ground for the unleashing of a quietly rising tendency in Britain – right-wing populism. Right-wing populism and anti-immigration politics has been present in the UK for a while, but has been divided between multiple parties, predominantly the Eurosceptic UK Independence Party (UKIP) and the far-right British National Party (BNP). In many constituencies in 2010, especially in the North, these two parties and other minor right-of-conservative parties together won over 10% of the vote. This was largely unnoticed because it was split between multiple parties. After 2010 the BNP went into meltdown. UKIP’s leader, Nigel Farage, specifically targeted them by his own admission, saying that most BNP voters are decent people simply angry about immigration. He even claimed responsibility for destroying the party.
The party has traditionally performed best in European elections. The political scientists Rob Ford and Matthew Elliott have compared UKIP’s previous pattern to being like a hibernating bear which emerged from its cave once every five years for European elections, would frighten the villages and then retire to its cave to sleep. As an illustration the party came second in the 2009 European election with 16.5% of the vote. It then fell to 3.1% in 2010 as it won strategic defectors from the main parties who opposed the EU. UKIP now polls between 10% and 20% of the vote in general election voting intention. The party has also won a string of second place finishes in by-elections, most notably in Eastleigh last year, and won an incredible victory in the 2013 local elections.
UKIP also benefitted from the coalition. Britain’s three main parties have now all been in power in the last five years. None thus provides a clear oppositional role. The Conservative Party has been unable to reduce immigration to the 10s of thousands as they promised a goal which always lacked credibility. In order to reduce immigration the Conservatives, unable to deal with ‘bad’ immigration, have restricted immigration which most Brits think is ‘good’ such as student visas.
The Lib Dems’ traditional role as a protest vote was also lost as the party entered government.
An additional boon to UKIP is that all three party leaders are from different wings of the British elite. Cameron originates in the traditional, aristocratic, upper class elite. Miliband originates in the academic, intellectual, left-wing elite. Clegg’s ancestry lies in the European aristocracy. A speaker of five languages he is a former MEP, and a former advisor to the ex-European Commissioner Leon Brittan. Clegg is thus of the Eurocrat elite. All three are around the same age (Cameron and Clegg are 47, Miliband is 44). Both Clegg and Cameron were privately educated, while Miliband went to a state school, it is known as the ‘Eton of the left’ due to the large number of prominent left-wingers educated there. Miliband and Cameron both went to Oxford University, and studied PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics). Clegg went to Cambridge. All three later worked as political advisors and critics allege they have never had a ‘real job’. In this respect all three have lived elite lives out of step with the lives of average Britons, leading to the impression of a ‘political class’ dominated by an increasingly narrow group of identikit politicians.
The famed UK expenses scandal of 2008-9 has also damaged the reputation of British politicians, and the public increasingly distrusts politicians on the issue of immigration.
Farage is part of the elite as well, a privately educated former metals trader from the London financial centre who has served as a MEP since 1999. Yet he successfully affects an authentic style, almost always being filmed drinking real ale in pubs up and down the land, or smoking a cigar, he dresses in a colourful, rural style, appears to speak his mind and goes on tirades against the political class. Under his leadership UKIP’s traditional Euroscepticism has been expanded. In particular the party has increasingly conflated the EU and immigration, stoking fears of renewed immigration from Bulgaria and Romania when the need for Bulgarians and Romanians to get work permits to work in the UK was lifted at the start of 2014 (initial figures suggest that the number of both groups working in the country has actually fallen since the 1st of January).
Britain has a long tradition of Euroscepticism, but for UKIP’s voters the EU has come to represent everything they hate about politics: an out-of-touch bureaucratic, dull elite (in a foreign country no less!) forcing open borders onto Britain.
Analysis of UKIP’s support base suggests it is composed overwhelmingly of older, poorly educated, male working class voters. These voters are deeply pessimistic about the direction Britain has been going in for decades. While Westminster journalists have often stereotyped UKIP as simply taking support from the Conservatives, the party takes around the same amount of support from Labour. The party is increasingly target traditional Labour party supporters. The recent book Revolt on the Right provides fascinating reading for anyone interested in UKIP’s rise.
UKIP’s support is predominantly English, and it is much weaker in Scotland, though it has some strength in Wales, especially in the North.
Like other right-wing populist parties, UKIP has had its fair share of controversy. A UKIP councillor received national attention and widespread mockery earlier this year when he claimed that flooding in the South West of England was the result of the legalisation of gay marriage. UKIP MEP Godfrey Bloom was forced to resign from the party after he drew attention away from Farage at the party’s 2013 conference for suggesting that women who did not clean behind the fridge were “sluts”, and then, as a journalist who questioned why UKIP’s conference brochure did not feature a single ethnic minority face, hitting said journalist over the head with a copy of said brochure.
Farage himself has received criticism, for instance, for saying that he felt uncomfortable when people spoke languages other than English on trains, or by saying he would feel uncomfortable if Romanians moved next door to him.
Scotland has seen the rise of a different type of populist outsider, as the Scottish parliament saw the Scottish National Party win a majority in 2011, which wasn’t supposed to be possible. The UK and Scottish governments have agreed to a binding referendum on Scottish independence to be held on the 19th of September. The SNP has a strong base in Scotland, and has appeared to be newly dominant in Scotland since 2011 due to a perennially weak and incompetent Scottish Labour Party.
Other parties of note are Plaid Cymru, the much weaker Welsh nationalist party, and the Greens, who in Britain are of a rather eco-socialist variety. They hold only one MP at Westminster, in the radical left wing seaside city of Brighton, known for its gay community and liberalism, but have strength in some regions of the country and do well in PR elections.
The Structure of British local government
British local government has a complex structure which differs widely between different regions due to both repeated reform attempts from central government and different histories.
The UK has a highly centralised political system and is often described as one of the most centralised countries in the world. Most of the local councils’ money has traditionally come from central government grants. The only tax that local government can levy in the UK is council tax, a property tax based on house prices, which is widely disliked as it is the only tax that comes in the form of a bill, and is perceived as regressive, hitting poor pensioners the hardest. Many would like to see a more devolved tax system, but Britain suffers from yawning regional disparities in wealth and hence a more localised tax system would tend to result in essentially taking money from poorer regions without a system of equalisation payments.
British local government has often been treated as little more than a delivery mechanism for central government policies. In the Labour years, when money was good, there was a tendency to create extra funds of central government money for local government but to ruthlessly ‘ring-fence’ it (make sure that the money could only be spent on that one area). The coalition substantially reduced ring-fencing in government and introduced a general power of competence which vastly expanded what councils could theoretically do but also substantially cut central government funding to councils (which was cut by 30%) meaning that councils could rarely afford to be more than managers of core services. No other government funding has been cut so radically. The Local Government and Communities minister, Eric Pickles, has also been fond of occasional diktat from Whitehall, trying to force local government into keeping weekly waste collections (some had gone to fortnightly as a cost-saving measure) and freezing their council tax rates. Under the coalition’s localism act councils must hold referendums if they raise council tax by more than a certain percentage. In response some councils have instead raised their council tax by 0.01% less than the limit to avoid a referendum. In theory, councils receive extra funds from central government for freezing their council tax but councils fear this money will evaporate with time putting them into further financial strain.
As local government is so anaemic in the UK turnouts have historically been low in UK local elections. Concern has been quite strong about turnout in local elections for a while, but in truth turnouts bottomed out in the period between 1998 and 2002 with a string of sub-30% scores and have now stabilising in the mid-30s. This is low compared to local elections in other countries but historically turnouts were not much higher than this in the 1970s. Turnout is very down when compared to the 1980s, but this was a period of extreme political polarisation in the UK which boosted turnouts and political engagement across the board.
Another aspect for the anaemic quality of local government is that local elections are most often used to comment on the performance of central government rather than to vote on genuinely local issues. Local elections in the UK are rarely truly ‘local’ as a result. In the vast majority of council areas traditional political parties vie for control, though the Liberal Democrats have often pursued a strategy of running much more heavily localised campaigns.
Local elections, as a result, suffer from a notable differential turnout effect whereby supporters of the opposition tend to tend out much more than supporters of the government (as in other mid-term elections internationally such as US mid-terms).
There are different types of councils in different parts of the UK with differing responsibilities and different systems of election.
In Scotland and Northern Ireland, councils are single-tier and elected by the Single Transferable Vote system of proportional representation in all-at-once elections. The Scottish councils were last elected in 2012, whereas the Northern Irish councils are up for election this year (more on this in a forthcoming article).
In Wales, there is also a system of unitary councils elected all at once using a bloc voting system in multi-member wards.
In England the systems become much more complex.
By far and away Britain’s largest city, London is governed by 32 ‘borough councils’. London is a massive international city, with a population of 8.5 million – as much as Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland put together. It represents 15% of the UK population. London’s boroughs are technically single-tier but since 2000 they share power with a directly elected Mayor of London, currently the Conservative Boris Johnson, famed for his eccentric, ‘upper class buffoon’ persona.
Nevertheless the vast majority of local services are provided by the boroughs, with the Mayoralty controlling economic structuring, transport and police across London.
The London Boroughs are all elected all-at-once on a four year cycle. The boroughs feature multi-member wards (the constituencies of local government) generally with 3 councillors each (though some 2 member wards have recently appeared).
18% of the population of the UK lives in the Metropolitan counties of the North of England. These six counties, Greater Manchester, Merseyside, South Yorkshire, Tyne and Wear, West Midlands and West Yorkshire are highly urbanised areas and essentially vast urban conurbations around the cities of Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Newcastle and Sunderland, Birmingham (Britain’s second largest city and the largest municipality in Europe), and Leeds.
The Mets used to be two-tier authorities, with the Metropolitan counties having their own higher level. This was abolished in the 1980s though there is some joint working at the county level. This collaboration has recently been increased as a way of reducing costs, with the most notable being the Greater Manchester Combined Authority.
The Mets are elected by a system of election by thirds. All wards in the Metropolitan councils have three councillors. One of these is elected each year to a four year term with one ‘fallow’ year. This system is supposed to provide a regular injection of accountability and new blood, but is increasingly criticised as costly, reducing turnout due to electoral fatigue and causing poor governance as councillors are distracted by elections for multiple months most years.
The most common type of council in the UK is district councils. These are two-layer councils with a county council above them. District councils handle housing, planning, leisure and recreation, waste collection, collection of council tax and environmental health. County councils handle local education authorities, transport, fire, social services, libraries and waste disposal.
Counties are elected in a four year cycle in the traditional first past the post single-member style. They were last up for election in 2013. Districts are allowed to choose between election by thirds (hence some wards have a local election literally every year as county councils are elected in the ‘fallow’ year), election by halves and election all at once. Most of those elected all at once were last elected in 2011 and will be next up in 2015.
Most of the district councils are rather small and rural.
In recent years there has been an increasing move towards the creation of unitary authorities, merging the responsibilities of districts and counties to reduce duplication and to create clearer lines of accountability. Unitaries come in two types. The first covers large towns or small cities outside the metropolitan areas which have been deemed large enough to support the necessary tax base to support one, such as Plymouth, Bristol, Peterborough or Portsmouth.
The other fashion has been to merge districts in large rural areas into one massive county council with the powers of the district councils in areas where district councils are deemed too small to support themselves. This has happened in areas such as Cornwall, Wiltshire, Northumberland and County Durham. These areas are typically largely rural or covered by small towns.
Most councils in Britain are governed by a fairly typical cabinet model, but since 2000 councils may introduce a directly-elected mayor with wide-ranging executive powers, usually this is done by referendum. Only fifteen councils have introduced the elected mayor model, four of which are London boroughs, Hackney, Lewisham, Newham and Tower Hamlets. A fifth elected mayor, in Watford, was up for election this year as well. Elected mayors are elected using a preferential system known as the Supplementary Vote system. SV features ballots laid out like a traditional British ballot paper except with a second column for a second preference. Voters may thus cast two preferences. A mayoral candidate who wins 50%+1 in the first round is deemed elected, if this does not happen then all but the top two are eliminated and second preferences redistributed. The plurality winner then wins. The system thus guarantees a wider mandate than First Past the Post but does not guarantee a majority as in AV or a two round system. SV means that voters must strategically vote for one of the top two candidates with their second vote. There is evidence that voters do not properly understand the system, with a significant minority of voters casting two preferences for one candidate (which obviously cannot transfer).
However, elected mayors themselves are widely seen as a success, improving governance, transparency and visibility for their communities. Polling suggests that 50% of the public in councils with an elected mayor can name their mayor, whereas only 10% of the public in councils with the usual model can name their council leader. Central government has often tried to push the elected mayoral model, especially in councils seen as poorly run and in big cities. Local government has often pushed back against the model, however. Councillors often fear losing power to elected mayors. In 2012 the government held referendums on elected mayors in the 10 biggest cities in England outside London. In Liverpool and Salford the referendums were, in essence, pre-empted, but of the remaining 8 cities only Bristol chose the mayoral model.
Prior local elections held alongside EP elections have shown a noticeably stronger result for UKIP.
The seats up this year were last up in 2010 and held alongside the general election. This means that they represent the last set of good results for the Lib Dems since before coalition, but also that Labour performed well in 2010 due to the high turnout.
European Parliament Elections in the UK
Since 1999, European parliament elections in Great Britain take place in the framework of a closed-list proportional representation. Britain elects 70 MEPs (3 more are elected in Northern Ireland) in regions, with one region representing Scotland and one Wales, and England split into the nine regions of East of England, East Midlands London, North East England, North West England, South East England, South West England, West Midlands and Yorkshire and the Humber.
The regions range from 3 seats (North East England) to 10 seats (South East England) in size creating effective thresholds between 7% and 20%. This makes the UK system fairly disproportionate, but it does also mean that the SNP and Plaid can win seats in their regions which a single constituency with a national threshold would stop (neither party would be capable of winning more than 3% nationally).
The PR system has allowed for the entry of smaller parties into the European Parliament, most notably UKIP, but the Greens, Scottish and Welsh nationalists and the far-right BNP also won seats in 2009.
Eurosceptic parties tend to perform better in EP elections. The prior success of UKIP in these elections is especially notable but the Conservatives also tend to perform better than in European elections on the same day.
The campaign was predominantly notable for an attempt by the Liberal Democrats and UKIP to polarise the election for their own interests.
In March Nick Clegg challenged Nigel Farage to a televised debate about whether to stay in or get out of the European Union, an eternal British political debate which practically predates UK accession itself. Clegg’s challenge was issued on his LBC radio show. By sheer coincidence, Nigel Farage decided to accept his challenge the next day, on his LBC radio show. It may not surprise readers to learn that one of the debates was hosted by LBC.
Both leaders sought to portray the other parties as scared of participating in a debate on this subject. Clegg sought to portray the Conservatives as taking a confused position on Europe (the Conservatives, who have a softly Eurosceptic stance re pledged to support a referendum on the EU in 2017 if they are re-elected), and to portray Labour as having no position at all (Labour’s campaign was noticeably silent on EU issues). Farage merely hoped to present all three leaders as in hoc to an EU elite which ‘truly’ made the laws in the UK.
The first debate was widely seen as a victory for Clegg by the press, until the instant polls came out and revealed that voters saw Farage as the winner, a reminder of just how unpopular Clegg was (and some might argue, how out of touch London-based journalists are with the population at large).
Clegg was also deemed to have lost the second debate, by a more convincing margin. Clegg’s hope had not been, in truth, to convince a majority of the British public of his view, however. While a majority of Brits are Eurosceptic, the Lib Dems’ potential vote is highly Europhile and he hoped to galvanise this support. There was also a sense that with the party in for a poor result that Clegg was attempting to demonstrate that the party at least lost by standing up for what it believes in.
In the end the effect of the debates on the polls seemed to be to help UKIP while the Lib Dems did not move.
Labour fought a campaign entirely on national issues. Using the campaign to mercilessly attack Nick Clegg, hoping to lock down the defectors from the Lib Dem left it has won since 2010 and to gain further votes from 2010 Lib Dems who are now ‘Don’t Knows’, which represents as much as a third of their 2010 vote.
One of their party election broadcasts was named the ‘uncredible shrinking man’ and portrayed Nick Clegg giving up all his policies in government before literally shrinking in size until he reaches the point that a tiny naked Nick Clegg is chased across the cabinet table by the Downing Street cat.
Labour knew that much of its base was in both the Eurosceptic and Europhile camps and so avoided talking about Europe for this reason.
Labour hoped to win the election through a low profile campaign focused on winning through the momentum of being in opposition.
The Conservative campaign predominantly focused on its European referendum pledge and on its promise of EU renegotiation. The Conservative campaign claimed that UKIP “can’t” give you a referendum, that Labour and the Lib Dems “won’t” give you a referendum and only the Conservatives could.
The Scottish National Party focused on Scotland’s current obsession, the Independence referendum, hoping to use evidence of a strong result as a way to parle into the referendum. The SNP party election broadcast was entirely focused on the independence referendum.
The Greens were perhaps the only party to run a campaign based upon what they’d actually done in the European Parliament, with a well-crafted party election broadcast. The party complained of poor media attention compared to UKIP.
Polls generally showed a tight battle between Labour and UKIP for first place, with UKIP gaining throughout the campaign, opening up a wide lead over Labour. The party then fell back at the last minute, but remained ahead in polling intention. Polls showed that UKIP voters were, ironically, the most interested and engaged in the European election campaign.
Most polls showed the Conservatives in third, and the Lib Dems and Greens battling for fourth place.
Local Election Results and Analysis
Note: Vote share in the below is ‘Projected National Vote’. Due to the fragmented nature of UK electoral administration, and the variances in electoral system, it is impossible to get a total vote count for the UK on Election Day and this measure is based on sampling key indicator wards across the country to produce a figure of what the popular vote would have been if every single part of the country was voting at the same time.
The measure is obviously not perfect. I am cynical that it deals well with the rise of UKIP as it has nothing to compare against from previous results. Hence take the below figures with a pinch of salt.
Projected national vote share compared against 2013. Seat change compared against the last time this swathe of seats was up: in 2010. Councils are change in control from the day.
Labour 31% (+2%) winning 2121 councillors (+324), and winning control of 82 councils (+6)
Conservatives 29% (+4%) winning 1364 councillors (-236) and winning control of 41 councils (-11)
Liberal Democrats 13% (-1%) winning 427 councillors (-310) and winning control of 6 councils (-2)
UK Independence Party 17% (-5%) winning 166 councillors (+163)
Independents winning 89 seats (+36)
Residents Associations (local alliances of independents similar to the Free Voters in Germany) winning 53 seats (+14)
Green Party winning 38 seats (+18)
Other parties winning 4 seats (-7)
32 councils (+8) now under No Overall Control.
This is a remarkable election result for UKIP, who, for the second year in a row, have made significant gains in the local elections. While the party’s PNV is down from 2013, I am cynical of PNV’s capability to properly measure UKIP as there is no previous record to go on with its support in local elections. This is also a very different set of councils to 2013. 2013 saw elections principally in the County Councils covering rural and small town England. 2014 sees elections predominantly in London and the metropolitan authorities of the North. In that regard UKIP’s success is all the more impressive.
UKIP won a decent number of seats for its strong popular vote, albeit not as many as other parties. UKIP suffers from a highly inefficient voter spread, spread across the country. Its principal demographics of the elderly, the working classes and the low educated rarely cluster together in a way which makes it the largest party, making the UK’s plurality voting systems a significant barrier to its electoral success.
Opponents of UKIP have pointed out that UKIP still does not control a single council. Yet due to the elections by thirds system used in almost every council outside London it is literally impossible to take control of councils. If a party wins every seat up in a council elected by thirds it will only control one third of seats on that council.
UKIP did, however, win the most seats and votes in Great Yarmouth, Thurrock and North East Lincolnshire. These are all depressed areas on the Eastern coast of England, which have recently experienced their first ever waves of immigration. They are white, working class and relatively elderly places. In winning these areas UKIP threw them into No Overall Control. Local politics is likely to be difficult in these areas – largely split between Labour, Conservatives and UKIP. These areas will undoubtedly form key UKIP target seats in 2015.
UKIP also won the most votes (but not the most seats) in Rotherham, an area of South Yorkshire which has been one of the most punished cities by the financial crisis and has one of the worst economies in the UK. UKIP performed well in a by-election there in 2012, winning what was then a record of 21.7% of the vote, due to a scandal hit Labour MP and another scandal regarding social workers removing three non-white children from the care of their foster parents on the basis that they were UKIP members and therefore they had ‘concerns’ about their views.
The party also won the popular vote in Dudley, a suburb of Birmingham.
The party did very well in Essex, the county directly East of London, long associated with the white working class. The party managed to surpass Labour on Basildon council, and now controls 12 seats to 17 for the Conservatives and 10 to Labour. The party took 5 seats from the Conservatives on Castle Point council, and is now looking to form a coalition with Castle Point’s only other party – the Canvey Island Independents Party. The party also threw Southend-on-Sea into NOC, taking 5 seats (though Labour also gained 3 to go to 9 and there is a big Independent group).
Essex is traditionally a very socially conservative white-working-class-done-good area, and ‘Essex Man’ was considered the key component of Margaret Thatcher’s winning coalition. Yet in areas like Rotherham and North East Lincolnshire, it demonstrated a capability to win in core Labour areas.
The exception to the UKIP surge was most noticeably London.
UKIP won 12 councillors in all of London in three boroughs, Bexley, Bromley and Havering. All three of these councils are located in the Eastern outskirts of the city. Bexley and Havering were formerly part of Essex, and Bromley was part of Kent. Havering, where UKIP won 7 seats, is often said to be ‘culturally Essex’, a predominantly white, upper working class area.
By contrast, Labour won its best successes in London. Probably its most vaunted success was taking Hammersmith and Fulham from the Tories. H&F has been nicknamed ‘David Cameron’s favourite council’ and was seen as an austerity success story. It actively cut council tax, when most councils suffered serious budgetary pressures. Yet controversy over a local hospital closure, and local concerns over housing seriously hurt the Conservatives. H&F has historically been viewed as a strongly Conservative area, Fulham, in particularly, is identified with wealthy Conservatives and the borough is in London’s more affluent West. Labour also took control of the South London borough of Croydon from the Conservatives. While the party controlled Croydon between 1994 and 2006 this was actually because of the inequities of plurality voting. 2014 represents the first time Labour has ever won the most votes in Croydon.
Croydon has become more and more ethnically mixed in recent years, aiding Labour’s victory. During the election campaign, UKIP, suffering from accusations of racism, held a carnival in Croydon, hiring a steel drum band. The event was widely seen to be a disaster and ended with Nigel Farage apparently cancelling his planned visit to the carnival as the steel drummers refused to play on realising that it was for UKIP and protesters and UKIP activists hurled abuse at one another. Winston McKenzie, a black UKIP council candidate who attended the event described Croydon as “a dump”.
Labour also took South London’s Merton and North East London’s Redbridge from NOC. This is the first time Labour will have control of Redbridge, which, like Croydon has become more ethnically mixed.
Labour also took back control of Harrow after a damaging internal split which had seen Labour councillors break away and form a coalition with the Conservatives.
Labour narrowly failed to take North West London’s Barnet, where a local programme titled ‘One Barnet’ has run into controversy. One Barnet is an attempt to outsource almost all elements of the council, essentially transforming the council into a commissioner of services rather than a provider of them. Labour won 27 seats to 32 for the Tories and 1 for the Lib Dems.
In its heartlands in London, Labour ran away with the election. Labour once again won every single seat on the East End’s Barking and Dagenham and Newham councils.
In the North West councils of Islington and Haringey the party has long been opposed by the Lib Dems with hardly a Conservative to be seen. This was, in a sense, a battle of two lefts. Labour representing the working class and ethnic minorities and Lib Dems representing the left-liberal bohemian public sector professionals, academics, journalists and media types that live in that region of London. The Lib Dems had controlled Islington between 1998 and 2006 and ran a minority administration until 2010. The Lib Dems have now been totally wiped out on Islington council. Labour’s sole opposition will be a single Green Party councillor.
The Liberal Democrats managed to retain 9 seats on Haringey council however. Haringey has something of a reputation as a poorly run council, but the seats were more likely saved by the association with a strong local MP – Lynne Featherstone, who is currently serving as a junior minister in the Department for International Development. Featherstone is a left-leaning Lib Dem who is known for her local campaigns.
Central London’s Lambeth and Lewisham in South East London also saw their sizeable Lib Dem groups, both serving as official oppositions, totally wiped out. Once again, the Greens benefitted, with the sole opposition member on Lewisham being a Green and Lambeth gaining a single Green councillor to act as the only opposition.
The Greens also won the second largest number of votes in North East London’s Hackney. Hackney, once a synonym for crime, deprivation and poor governance is highly diverse borough which has been utterly transformed in the last 10 years as it has become synonymous was gentrification and London’s ‘hipster’ community of young professional bohemians which is based around the Shoreditch, Hoxton and Dalston areas of the borough. Hackney has benefitted from the leadership of its technocratic Labour mayor, Jules Pipe. Despite coming second in votes (as they did in the other boroughs already mentioned) the Greens failed to win any seats as they came second in almost every ward in the borough, as well as in the mayoral election.
The Green Party has long failed to do well in central London even though it would seem to be a perfect match for the area. This is probably because the Lib Dems, always successful at turning to face whichever direction is electorally convenient, have largely adopted the sort of green liberalism familiar to continental European Green parties. This has obviously been extremely mismatched with their participation in government with the Conservatives, however, causing left-liberals to flee to Labour and the Green Party.
The Green Party will now need to build on its high vote in this election and start targeting seats to build up a local infrastructure, but there is a lot of potential for the party in the North of London in particular, but also in central London and in Lewisham.
The biggest disappointment of the local elections for Labour was perhaps Tower Hamlets, an incredibly diverse borough which is 41.1% Asian (32% of which are Bangladeshi) to 45.2% White and 7.3% Black.
Tower Hamlets politics has long been strained by the importation of a certain style of tribal politics from the Indian subcontinent. The local branch of the Labour Party is under ‘special measures’, a 1980s invention designed to stop entryism by the Trotskyist grouping Militant Tendency. In Tower Hamlets Labour Party’s case special measures was imposed due to what is known in Australia as ‘branch stacking’ whereby members are recruited to a party for factional reasons. In Tower Hamlets selection meetings would often see the arrival of huge numbers of members who the party had never seen before. These members were, in reality, an attempt by Bengali community leaders of two rival factions to literally buy Labour Party selections. The party discovered that in many cases members did not even realise they were members of the party, or in fact admitted to usually voting for another party. The two factions are not ideologically different, in reality this is a battle along tribal lines.
Special measures essentially places the local party under the direct control of the central party, which has imposed its own selection of candidates upon the local party, balancing candidature along ethnic lines to stop any one group from gaining total control. The Labour Party is not the only party that has suffered from this in Tower Hamlets, but as the dominant party in the borough the party has perhaps suffered the most and perhaps has the most meaningful impact.
2005 saw the election of George Galloway, a former Labour MP who had opposed the Iraq War, on his far-left RESPECT ticket in one of the Tower Hamlets parliamentary constituencies. Galloway was accused of whipping up ethnic discord against his predecessor, Oona King, one of Britain’s few black woman MPs. Galloway had been elected almost entirely on votes from the Bengali community. While Galloway lost his seat in 2010, ethnic discord continued to build.
The elected mayoral model was adopted for Tower Hamlets in 2010. The elected mayoral was hoped to bring better governance to Tower Hamlets, which has been afflicted by serious amounts of infighting amongst the dominant Labour group. The elected mayoral model has, in neighbouring Labour dominated boroughs in Newham and Hackney served to unite the Labour group around the mayor.
The regional board decided that, for the mayoral election, the local Labour Party would be allowed to select its own candidate for the mayoralty rather than having one imposed.
The selection was won by Luftur Rahman, a Bengali former council leader who had been repeatedly judged unfit for selection for mayor by regional and national figures. Rahman was viewed as an ethnically divisive figure with low loyalty to the party (he failed to endorse the two Labour candidates for Westminster running in TH in 2010). Rahman had only gone through to selection after a series of legal challenges.
Post-selection other candidates complained of electoral fraud in the process, with evidence that very large numbers of people had voted who had not been resident in the borough. The party thus removed Rahman from the position and put into place Halal Abbas, another Bengali who had come third in the selection.
Rahman subsequently decided to run as an independent candidate. Despite the fact that Rahman had backed the ‘Blairite’ David Miliband for leadership of Labour Rahman received support from the left, gaining the endorsement of RESPECT and George Galloway, and support from left-wing factions of Labour such as the entryist Trotskyists of Socialist Action. Most damagingly, he received support from Ken Livingstone, the maverick former Mayor of London, and the candidate in 2012’s London mayoral race. Livingstone had formerly won the mayoralty as an independent himself after Blair had deemed him an unacceptable candidate in 2000. Livingstone later claimed he had only backed giving a second preference to Rahman.
Rahman won the mayoralty. As mayor of Tower Hamlets he has been deeply controversial. Rahman’s cabinet has been entirely made up of Bengalis. The Daily Telegraph’s Andrew Gilligan accused Rahman of links to the Islamic Forum of Europe, based in the East London mosque, which is itself accused of being a front for radical Islam. He has been accused of misusing public funds, and of consorting with criminals. In March 2014 the BBC documentary series Panorama alleged that the mayor had diverted £3.6m worth of grants to Bangladeshi and Somali community groups in exchange for political support. Tower Hamlets is now the only council in the country which publicly funds faith groups, with most money going to the Muslim community. Panorama also accused TH council of bribing journalists and Rahman of failing to answer questions at council meetings. In response, the Local Government and Communities Minister, Eric Pickles, sent fraud investigators to Tower Hamlets. Both TH and Rahman deny any wrongdoing. All in all, Rahman has been accused of basing his administration in the needs and desires of only one very narrow community.
Tower Hamlets politics has long been stained by accusations of electoral fraud. Fraud within the Labour Party has been covered above, but there are accusations of fraud in the electoral system itself.
Britain’s electoral system is surprisingly open to fraud. The electoral registration system is based upon a system of ‘household registration’ where a ‘head of household’ registers all names living in the house. No unique identifiers are required, and no ID is required at polling stations, it is possible to vote by just giving your name and address.
Since 2003 Britain also has postal voting on demand, an attempt to raise turnout. In 2005 in an electoral fraud case in Birmingham the presiding judge described the postal voting system as one which would disgrace a ‘banana republic’. The system has since been made much more secure, but allegations of fraud continue. Britain is a country which has long run on a culture of trust. In part this has been deserved. Britain has never had a written constitution, in part, because Britain has never truly needed a written constitution. Britain is moving to a system of individual electoral registration by the 2015 general election, and the Electoral Commission has proposed a system of voter ID.
Accusations of postal voting fraud are common in TH, with activists claiming that some houses are registered for far more postal votes than could possibly live in the homes in question.
This year, in response to fraud allegations, police officers were stationed at polling stations in Tower Hamlets. Since 2010 Rahman has formed his own party, Tower Hamlets First, and the party was accused of fraud, voter intimidation and of illegally placing election posters in polling stations.
There have actually been very few investigations and arrests for fraud, and some argue that these allegations are overegged by political opponents seeking to delegitimise each other. In truth it is difficult to tell because Britain’s electoral system makes it difficult to detect and prove fraud.
The count in Tower Hamlets took 119 hours to count its ballots. No other council took more than a day to count its ballots. The extra level of security in Tower Hamlets was largely to blame. The count was widely derided as a ‘farce’, and the Electoral Commission is launching an inquiry into the count.
Rahman won 43.4% of the vote in the first round, largely believed to be almost entirely from the Bengali community. John Biggs, his Labour opponent, won 32.8% of the vote. In the second round Biggs won 6,500 second preferences compared to just 856 for Rahman, with Conservative and Lib Dem support flowing behind Biggs. However, despite receiving 88.4% of second preferences Biggs still lost to Rahman in the second round. Notably, 12,696 of the votes not cast for Rahman and Biggs in the first round did not contain a valid second preference, demonstrating the problems of the Supplementary Vote system.
Additionally, Labour lost control of TH council, winning just 20 seats to 18 for Tower Hamlets First and with 4 for the Conservatives. 3 seats lay vacant as in Blackwall and Cubitt Town ward the election was delayed due to the sad death of a THF candidate the day before the election. Hence there will be a by-election for these seats. It is likely that the Conservatives will team up with Labour during the next four years in an attempt to weaken Rahman as much as possible. Tower Hamlet’s divisive, ethnically polarised politics are likely to continue however.
Labour’s success in London extended to the London commuter belt, to cities and towns such as Reading, Basingstoke, Crawley and Milton Keynes.
The Conservatives perform better in the outer ring of London and in the West. The party’s strongest result was in Kensington and Chelsea, a central London borough synonymous with wealth, today known as the home of Russian oligarchs who treat London as their personal playground. The Conservatives held a reduced majority in Wandsworth in South London, well known as the council in the UK with the lowest council tax due to a long history of radical conservative rule. As mentioned above they barely held North London’s Barnet.
The party’s biggest success of the night was taking Kingston upon Thames council from the Liberal Democrats, a suburban council on the outskirts of South West London. The Lib Dems had ruled the council for 12 years, and rule of the council was largely perceived to have become dysfunctional. Last year the council leader stepped down after being arrested on suspicion of possessing indecent images of children. He subsequently pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years in prison. The council was also criticised for having the highest council tax in London. The Lib Dems cannot just blame the national swing here, therefore.
The Conservatives broadly performed well with the exception of Havering on London’s East end extreme. Formerly part of Essex, Havering has a skilled working class, white and socially conservative area of the type Margaret Thatcher won for the party. Internal turmoil over selections within the Conservative group had seen defections to UKIP and to independents on the council and the local Residents Association, one of the few in London, won 24 councillors, gaining 12, largely from the Tories. UKIP also won 7 councillors, surpassing Labour who actually lost councillors, going from 4 to 1 as the Residents Association and UKIP tsunami weakened them. It is likely that the Residents Assocation will take minority control, switching between Conservative and UKIP support for their proposals.
The Lib Dems were wiped out from large parts of central London, and, as mentioned above, lost Kingston. In the incredibly wealthy suburban borough of Richmond-upon-Thames in South London, where the party has traditionally been very strong, the Lib Dems lost 9 seats to the Conservatives.
However, the party did hold the last of its suburban South West London strongholds, Sutton, even increasing its seats by 2, though they lost votes, due to the effects of the bloc voting system.
Elsewhere in the UK the Lib Dems generally suffered in areas where they lacked council control or a MP. The traditional Lib Dem strategy of highly localist campaigns has allowed it to keep a hold in areas of strength. Incumbent MPs often remain popular in their areas, with popular incumbents providing a visible presence that is not Nick Clegg.
In addition to Kingston, the Lib Dems also lost control of Portsmouth city council. Portsmouth is a major naval city and port in the Southern coast. As with Kingston there had been local causes. The Lib Dem MP for Portsmouth South, Mike Hancock, was suspended from the party in January. Hancock also served as a councillor and was the only MP in Britain to simultaneously serve as part of his council’s cabinet. Hancock had long been a controversial MP, with a reputation as a womaniser and activist on behalf of the Russian government, had been accused of sexually harassing and assaulting constituents. Hancock’s suspension from the party was strongly opposed by the local party. He was suspended as a councillor and became an independent but the local party essentially formed a coalition with him so that he could remain part of the council cabinet before being booted out by the national party.
Hancock ran as an independent for the council this year. The local Lib Dems ran no candidate in opposition to him de facto supporting his candidature. Hancock’s bid for re-election failed, however, as he was defeated by UKIP. The Lib Dems had broadly maintained their strength in 2011 and 2012 in Portsmouth, but in response to the local scandal the party was dealt a massive blow. The party lost 5 seats and lost control of the council to No Overall Control. While the party remains the largest on the council with 19 seats to 12 for the Conservatives, 6 for UKIP (all newly elected), 4 for Labour and 1 Independent it appears that they will lose control of the council as Labour and UKIP, disgusted with the local Lib Dem group, are preparing to support a minority Conservative cabinet.
The Lib Dems held up well with their areas with MPs, outside London. For instance, winning the most votes in the Sheffield Hallam part of Sheffield, held by the party leader, Nick Clegg. The party regained a seat lost to an independent defection in Eastleigh, its stronghold. The party lost only one seat in South Lakeland, its other stronghold, where Tim Farron, the party president widely believed to be a future leadership contender has his seat. However there were exceptions, such as left-leaning, student city Cambridge, and the party was reduced to only 3 seats in Norwich where it holds the more Southern of the 2 constituencies.
The party was wiped out in Metropolitan boroughs. Manchester Withington MP John Leech, elected in 2005 on a student and anti-war vote can pretty much write off his chances of holding his seat in 2015 as there is not a single Lib Dem left on Manchester City Council.
The Conservatives held up well throughout that part of England outside London, whereas Labour performed badly. In the key Labour target of the South Western town of Swindon, for instance, the Tories actually increased their majority from 1 to 2 as they took a seat from Labour. Embarrassingly for Labour, Ed Miliband was asked about the party’s leader on the council he revealed that he didn’t know who he was and then assumed he was already council leader.
Labour performed well in the Metropolitan boroughs. They now hold every single seat on Manchester City Council, bar one, held by an independent who has defected from Labour. ‘Half an opposition councillor’ as some have joked.
The Greens also performed well in the Mets. They won the second largest number of votes in Manchester and with 4 seats are now the opposition in Liverpool. They increased their seats to six in the unitary council of Bristol, and to 9 in Solihull, an affluent suburb of Birmingham, making them the joint second largest party with the Lib Dems to the Conservatives. Lib Dem MP Lorely Burt is another MP likely to lose her seat (her majority is a razor thin 175).
The only other Conservative held Met is Trafford, in Greater Manchester, where they continue to hold a majority of 3. The Mets, are, however, Labour strongholds anyway, with the exceptions of Trafford and Solihull. It does not help Labour to make gains in Liverpool, where it currently holds all six of the MPs, the elected mayoralty and an overwhelming majority on the council.
Fans of maps should see the interactive one of London local election results in 2014, 2010 and 2006 here.
European Election Results
UKIP (EFD) 27.5% (+11.0%) winning 24 seats (+11)
Labour (S&D) 25.4% (+9.7%) winning 20 seats (+7)
Conservatives (ECR) 23.9% (-3.8%) winning 19 seats (-7)
Green Party (G-EFA) 7.9% (-0.8%) winning 3 seats (+1)
Liberal Democrats (ALDE) 6.9% (-6.9%) winning 1 seat (-10)
Scottish National Party (G-EFA) 2.5% (+0.3%) winning 2 seats (NC)
Plaid Cymru (G-EFA) 0.7% (-0.1%) winning 1 seat (NC)
An Independence from Europe 1.5% (-) winning 0 seats (-)
British National Party (NI) 1.1% (-5.1%) winning 0 seats (-2)
The 2014 European Parliament election provided a huge success to UKIP, who became the first party to win a national election in the UK besides the Labour and the Conservatives since the rise of the Labour Party in the 1920s. For the first time, the Conservatives were pushed into third in a national election.
Regionally UKIP topped the poll in in the East Midlands, the East of England, South East England, South West England, the West Midlands, and Yorkshire and the Humber.
Labour topped the poll in London, North West and North East England, Scotland and Wales, its strongest regions.
UKIP’s strongest regions are the heavily Eurosceptic regions of the South West, South East and East, but the party gained strongly in the North of England, as a result of the party’s increasing inroads amongst Labour voters. The party’s biggest gains were in Wales (+17.1%) the North East (+17.0%), Yorkshire and Humber (+16.8), and the North West (+15.8%) all strongly Labour regions and it came second in North East England (by 7.3%), North West England (by 6.3%) and Wales (by an incredibly narrow 1.6% in the supposedly one party state.)
The exceptions to UKIP’s big gains were Scotland (where it gained just 3.8%) and London (where it gained just 4.6%). It also showed a weaker rise in the East Midlands (+6.8%) and the South West of England (+12.6%) largely because these areas were ‘early adopters’ of UKIP.
In Scotland UKIP succeeded in electing a MEP for the very first time, sending shockwaves through progressive opinion north of the border which had long claimed that Scotland was immune to UKIP. Nonetheless, UKIP only gained a single seat. David Coburn, the party’s new Scottish MEP is already a controversial figure in Scotland due to his being the London regional chair, with the widespread perception that he was ‘parachuted in’ into a divided Scottish party branch against its will.
Since being elected Coburn’s views on gay marriage (he is opposed, despite being gay himself) and on Scottish Independence (in the event of a yes vote he wants to hold another referendum to try and reverse the decision after the 2015 election) have also been controversial.
UKIP’s appeal in Scotland has been blunted by its English nationalism and the presence of the SNP as an alternative anti-establishment, nationalist (albeit left-wing nationalist) party.
The SNP had been aiming for a third seat, and its coming second to Labour is something of a blow to the party pre-referendum. Yet we should remember the low turnout and that Labour is both in opposition in the UK and Scottish parliaments to the SNP.
London was also an outlier from the UK wide trend. As in the local elections, Labour tore through London, winning half of London’s MEPs, 4, (an increase of 2) on 36.7% of the vote. UKIP managed only 16.9% of the vote and 1 seat, the only region of the country where it came third.
During the local elections count, UKIP’s communities spokeswoman commented that London was not good for UKIP because it is ‘young, cultured and educated’, leading to guffaws from UKIP’s opponents who derided her as saying that UKIP was the party of the old, the stupid and the backwards.
Yet, there is an element of truth to this. UKIP’s support is most strong amongst white, elderly, poorly educated voters. Multicultural, youthful, highly educated London is indeed bad ground for the party.
Labour’s performance around the rest of Britain was poorer, however, whereas the Conservative vote held up well. With Scotland and London removed, the Conservatives would have beaten Labour. This exposes the weak position Labour is now in less than a year from a general election.
The Greens fell back slightly, but increased their seats by 1 partially due to a Lib Dem collapse, winning an extra seat in the South West to go with their seat in the South East (where their stronghold of Brighton is and where there are the most seats and the lowest effective threshold) and in London. The Greens may perhaps have had only 1 seat had it not been for ‘An Independence from Europe’. AIE is a breakaway party from UKIP formed by former UKIP MEP Mike Nattrass who was deselected by UKIP. The party appears to have acted as a spoiler on UKIP, with it going to the top of the ballot as Britain’s ballots are alphabetically ordered (hence UKIP was near the bottom), winning on average 2% of the vote in the regions it stood in (it missed Wales and Scotland). We can assume that the vast majority of AIE voters would have voted UKIP had the party not existed. As such UKIP would have taken the Green seats in London and the South West.
The Lib Dems lost 10 seats, reduced to only a single MEP, Catherine Bearder, elected in the South East, which has the lowest effective threshold. In fairness to the party they always perform badly in European elections where the party’s pro-Europeanism is unpopular and where elected representatives are too distant to use the Lib Dems usual tactics of building a popular local representative. The regional system also means that in many regions the party had won one of the last seats in 2009, just clearing the effective threshold for representation. With the party’s collapse, the party fell below the effective thresholds and lost seats almost everywhere, including influential MEPs such as former ALDE leader Graham Watson in the South West, and Vice-President of the European Parliament, and key Tory defector Edward McMillan-Scott.
Excellent maps of the European election result can be found on the Election-Data blog here.
Overall, the elections expose a new division in the UK, between London and the rest of the country. Labour’s strength in London exposes an increasing divide between it and the rest of England. This is apparent in public opinion data. For instance, on immigration most of the country very much favours more stringent immigration policy, but London tends to slightly favour immigration. Labour policies on the ‘cost-of-living crisis’ predominantly appeal in London where prices are highest. For instance, rent controls have little resonance in rural areas and small towns where rents are relatively low and home ownership is more typically the norm. Labour’s London strength is also because it is younger and multicultural. We can also see the Greens beginning to break through in London.
Labour also has its best machines in London, with estimates suggesting that a quarter of Labour’s membership resides in the capital. Labour has become a party of urban England, but a majority is unlikely to be won on London and Northern cities alone.
UKIP poses the party a big threat in smaller towns. The elections have put paid to the often touted lie that UKIP’s voters are universally former Conservative voters disenchanted with the coalition. UKIP is the representative of a vast social shift in Britain. The party won more votes, but also has a much loyal base. While the party’s European result includes a large number of ‘strategic defectors’ using the EP elections to say ‘no three times’ – to Westminster, to immigration and to Brussels, there are less than in previous years. Polls suggest that around 60% of UKIP’s voters will support it at the general election.
The Conservatives are broadly happy with their performance. The party lost to Labour in both elections, but only thinly by a few points. Polls also suggest it is only slightly behind Labour. This is a year before a general election. Typically the last year before an election sees movement towards the governing party. Economic confidence is quickly rising as the recovery is under way. The party will aim to put a squeeze on UKIP voters, who tend to prefer Cameron as Prime Minister to Ed Miliband and who may be persuadable to voting Conservative strategically to stop Miliband becoming PM.
Yet the party retains significant weaknesses amongst key voting demographics and in key regions of the country.
The Lib Dems have suffered yet another punishing result. Yet, in the results is a glimmer of hope that it will outperform its national swing in 2015, holding the majority of its seats.
Nonetheless, the party experienced an attempted coup against Nick Clegg on beginning the weekend after the election. A shadowy group called ‘LibDems4Change’ launched an e-petition calling for a leadership contest, and on the Sunday an unnamed Lib Dem leaked a poll to The Observer newspaper supposedly demonstrating that key seats were in danger of being lost unless Nick Clegg was replaced by the more left-leaning Business Secretary Vince Cable. On being released publically it was demonstrated that the poll had methodological issues (a debunking by the pollster Survation can be read here which shows that under ICM’s usual methodology the seats would have been held.)
The poll was later revealed to have been commissioned by Lord Oakeshott, a former Lib Dem Treasury spokesman from the early days of the Treasury who is known to be one of Cable’s closest friends. Cable rapidly distanced himself from Oakeshott, and Oakeshott resigned from the party and took a leave of absence from the Lords. Oakeshott’s coup attempt was widely viewed as incompetent and in a sense it may have strengthened Clegg by acting as a lightning rod for discontent before being defeated.
This is the last test of British public opinion before the 2015 general election, and the Scottish Independence referendum this September.
However, there is a by-election this Thursday, in the Conservative safe seat of Newark. UKIP is polling well.
While everybody was busy with Italy, an important by-election was held in the UK – in the constituency of Eastleigh. Chris Terry was nice enough to offer me a fantastic guest post on this by-election. Chris is a Research Officer for the Electoral Reform Society in the United Kingdom and you can follow him on Twitter here.
A by-election was held in Eastleigh, England on the 28th of February.
The by-election was caused by the resignation of Chris Huhne MP. Huhne was a prominent Liberal Democrat, originally Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change in the UK’s coalition government. He had twice run for leader of the party, both times coming second. The second time he was only very narrowly beaten by 1.2% by current Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg. 1,200 votes were held up in the Christmas post and an unofficial check of them revealed that Huhne had had enough votes to win the leadership, though, to his credit, he stood by the result.
Shortly after being made a Minister in Britain’s Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition government in 2010 Huhne had split from his wife, Vicky Pryce, a former head of the Government Economic Service. He had left her for his press officer, Carina Trimingham. The nature of this revelation caused Pryce to leak to the press that Huhne had had her claim responsibility for speeding when he had been caught by a speed camera. Lying in this way was perversion of justice, and so a court case started against Huhne and then also against Pryce, as she, too, had been complicit in this. Pryce claimed not guilty due to ‘marital coercion’, a rarely used defence in UK law. Huhne eventually pleaded guilty on the 5th of February. He has not been sentenced yet but, as it was clear he would receive jail time he resigned his seat. Pryce’s trial is currently subject to a retrial as the Jury could not reach a decision in the original trial.
The 2010 election had resulted in Britain’s first hung parliament since 1974 and the first peacetime Coalition government since before the war. After thirteen years of Labour governance Britain was suddenly faced with a Coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. During the 2010 election the Lib Dems and their leader, Nick Clegg, had become briefly extremely popular, riding a wave known as ‘Cleggmania’ from Clegg’s strong performance in Prime Ministerial debates. Polls early in the campaign had shown the Lib Dems challenging for the most votes. On election day, however, they fell back from these optimistic predictions, winning 23.0% (a gain of 1%) of the vote, and remaining in third. They also lost six seats. Nonetheless this was their strongest popular vote since 1983, and their second strongest since 1923, shortly after Labour had leap frogged them to being the main opposition to the Conservatives. They also held the balance of power in a hung parliament, and formed a Coalition with David Cameron’s Conservatives.
After forming the Coalition, Lib Dem fortunes quickly deteriorated. Lib Dem voters are a heterogenous group but perhaps a majority in 2010 were either protest voters or left-of-centre. Many voters had voted for the Lib Dems because they saw them as more left-wing than Labour. A particularly symbolic moment for many was the vote on University tuition fees. The Lib Dems had long been against University tuition fees and during the 2010 campaign its MPs had signed a cast-iron pledge designed by the National Union of Students to the effect that, as a MP, they would not vote for any rise in tuition fees. This was a short-sighted policy in many ways, both Labour and Conservatives clearly favoured tuition fees in private and considering Britain’s economic position (a budget deficit equivalent to around 10% of GDP) it was difficult to see where the money would come from. The Lib Dem’s therefore ended up having to agree to raising tuition fees from a maximum of £3,000 a year; to £9,000 a year (it is very rare to see a University charging less than the maximum). The Lib Dems had had a very strong youth and student base and this was seen as a massive betrayal. The Lib Dem party itself split in the Commons. 27 Lib Dems, almost all ministers in the government, voted for the rise, 21 voted against and 8 abstained, in an atmosphere notable for the massive student protests in London.
From 23% in 2010, opinion polls indicated that the Lib Dems may have fallen into the single digits nationally, with some polls showing the Lib Dems as low as 8%, though some higher, at around 15%, with the polls mostly averaging around the 10% mark. Considering Britain’s First Past the Post electoral system if uniform swing applied this would mean the loss of a startling number of Lib Dem seats, the vast majority. However a glimmer of hope remained for the Lib Dems in their results in local elections where they demonstrated a capability to maintain strength in the areas where they have MPs and particularly against the Conservatives. The Liberal Democrats as a party have often relied on strong local figures maintaining a strong profile as ‘local MPs’ and therefore having a strong personal vote. Indications were that this was continuing. A tradition of Labour supporters tactically voting Lib Dem to stop Conservatives getting in also seemed to continue. It was in areas where the Lib Dems had strong second or third places in 2010 where they lost the most votes. This suggested that the Lib Dems may save more seats than uniform swing indicated, especially as 38 of the party’s 57 seats were in seats where the Conservatives were in second place.
The Conservatives had had started in government fairly well, with a surprisingly long honeymoon period in the initial days of the Coalition in contrast to their Lib Dem partners. However since the 2012 budget things started to fall off the Conservative wagon. The government had cut the new top rate of tax introduced by Labour for those earning over £150,000 a year from 50% to 45%, whilst also removing certain exemptions from the tax code. A particularly odd argument that raged on was that of the ‘pasty tax’. The government had removed an exemption from VAT for hot takeaway food, such as pasties, a savoury pastry filled with meat and vegetables. The pasty is seen as a food of the working class, and so the ‘pasty tax’ was seen as symbolic of a government that did not understand ordinary people. Embarrassing photo ops had to be arranged where politicians explained just how much they enjoyed a pasty. At one point David Cameron was asked at a press conference when the last time he had a pasty was, he responded with a story about buying a pasty at Leeds railway station, but it was later revealed that the pasty shop he mentioned had shut down at the time he said! The Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and many other prominent Conservatives come from aristocratic backgrounds and the Conservatives have often been seen as the ‘Party of the Rich’. There was therefore a contrast between the ‘tax cut for millionaires’ as Labour framed it, and a tax raise on a beloved lunchtime meal of the ordinary working man. The Conservatives have also been tainted by associations with the Murdoch press after the fall out from the phone hacking scandal and had to deal with an increasingly rebellious and unruly set of backbench MPs, who feel that the Coalition government has been insufficiently right-of-centre. Cameron has had to deal with an increasingly vocal and rebellious backbench who apparently feel that his moderation was beyond their failure to win in 2010. Unlike Blair who was able to hold moral authority over his party by virtue of his large majorities and therefore claim superior democratic legitimacy Cameron has had no such luck and many Conservative MPs feel a weak attachment to the Coalition Agreement, feeling that their party’s manifesto is more important. One particular backbench MP, Peter Bone, is well known for his almost weekly calls for Cameron to end the Coalition. While his is a lone voice, it is nonetheless a sign of the times in the party.
Labour had been launched into a leadership contest immediately after the 2010 election. The favourite was David Miliband, the former Foreign Secretary, a former aide to Tony Blair widely seen as on the right of the party. His main competitor was Ed Miliband, his younger brother, the former Energy and Climate Change Secretary and a former aide to Gordon Brown, who was seen as closer to the centre-left of the party. To the surprise of many commentators Ed Miliband won, just.
Ed’s earliest period in power was problematic for the party. He was painted out in the right wing press as ‘Red Ed’, opposed to any and all cuts to the state. He was seen as uncharismatic, nerdy, and even a little weird. There was a strong public perception that he had ‘stabbed his brother in the back’ with rumours that the two no longer spoke.
However as the Conservative’s problems grew Labour grew in strength in the polls, and this led to a change in the narrative about him. Ed also became more confident in front of a camera and in the Commons. While Ed still has his problems and is not riding any Obama-like wave of ascendancy, he is no longer seen as the unremitting disaster he was initially presented as.
Nonetheless, approval ratings for all three party leaders are now pretty terrible and there is a certain anti-establishment feeling in the UK. This has fed into the rise of a new(ish) force – UKIP. Originally short for UK Independence Party (the party recently changed its official name to just the acronym), UKIP was originally a very minor party, eclipsed by the similarly Eurosceptic Referendum Party of millionaire former Conservative donor Sir James Goldsmith. UKIP was originally a single-issue party with a single raison d’etre – the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union. The party had done well in European Parliamentary elections in the UK, aided by a broadly Eurosceptic electorate, a proportional voting system and low turnouts UKIP had managed to get 3 MEPs elected in 1999 (coming fourth), 12 elected in 2004 (beating the Lib Dems into third) and 13 in 2009 (beating Labour into second).
UKIP had never been particularly good at winning votes in general or local elections however. In 2010 it won 3.1% of the vote in the UK, but came nowhere close to a seat anywhere, with its most prominent candidate, current leader Nigel Farage, only succeeding in third place against Commons Speaker John Bercow (by convention the three main parties do not run against the Speaker). However since 2010 UKIP has been gaining steam, pulling off a string of impressive by-election results, often coming in second, though never actually winning. The party’s best record is 21.7% of the vote in Rotherham in November 2012. The party has also climbed in the opinion polls, where it ranges between 8% and 16%. The party’s success has been due to a variety of factors. Firstly their current leader, Nigel Farage, is a ‘straight talking’ sort of politician who has become popular with news organisations due to his bombastic style replete with quips and put downs for his political contemporaries. In one infamous speech in the European Parliament he lambasted the President of the European Council, the former Belgian PM Herman Van Rompuy, as having the “charisma of a damp rag”, as “looking like a low-grade bank clerk” and as coming from a “non-country”. UKIP has also rounded its policies with policies designed to appeal to right-wing Conservatives in particular. The party increasingly concentrates on opposition to immigration and gay marriage. It is said to be pulling away significant numbers of activists from Conservative Future, the Conservatives youth wing. Finally the party appears to be benefitting from the removal of the Lib Dems as a viable protest vote.
All the seats that had been up for by-election so far had been either Labour safe seats, with the exception of Corby, a Lab/Con marginal which has tended to be the former rather than the latter in recent years. In all of these bar one notable exception (Bradford West, where the former Labour MP George Galloway won backed by his far-left RESPECT coalition) the Labour candidate had won, often fairly resoundingly. Eastleigh, however, was a LD/Con marginal. The Eastleigh by-election therefore provided an interesting opportunity for the psephologically-inclined to see how the Lib Dems might perform against the Conservatives at the next election, scheduled for 2015. It was also important to both Coalition parties. For the Lib Dems, a win would mean rare positive press, a significant morale boost for their base and a demonstration that the party was not heading towards electoral wipe-out. For the Conservatives the win was less necessary but it would show that the party was capable of defeating the Lib Dems, who hold significant numbers of Conservative target seats. Eastleigh was therefore, by many measures, the most important by-election since 2010.
Eastleigh is a railway town (a town that primarily developed because of its railway station) in the South of England. It is just 5 miles North of the city of Southampton, one of the larger cities in the South of England, besides London. Like most of Southern England outside London, Eastleigh is overwhelmingly White British, predominantly middle class, though there are working class areas, and economically active.
Up until 1994 Eastleigh had been regarded as a Conservative safe seat, won by the Conservatives at every election since the seat’s creation in 1955. In 1992 the Conservatives had won it with 51.3% of the vote, defeating the second placed Lib Dems with a majority of 23.3%. The sad death of the Conservative MP, Stephen Milligan, a rising star in the party, from what appeared to be a sex act gone wrong led to a by-election in 1994. By this point John Major’s Conservative government had become exceptionally unpopular and in the by-election the Conservative vote collapsed, with the Conservatives winning less than half of their 1992 vote, at 24.7%, coming third with the Lib Dems winning the seat with 44.3% for their candidate, David Chidgey. The seat was held by the Lib Dems from then on. The Conservatives, however, targeted Eastleigh which continually remained just out of reach. The Conservatives would gain votes, but the Lib Dems would succeed through tactical voting in their favour from Labour. Chidgey stood down in 2005, to be replaced by Chris Huhne. In doing so the party lost Chidgeys personal vote and Huhne was only able to defeat the Conservatives by 1.1% of the vote. He increased this in 2010 to 7.2%.
In many other respects Eastleigh has become something of a fortress for the Lib Dems. The party currently holds all of the council seats in the constituency, giving it a stupendous majority on Eastleigh borough council of 40-4 against the Conservatives (with the 4 Conservatives holding seats in areas outside the constituency boundaries). Remarkably the Lib Dems have even managed to gain seats in Eastleigh since 2010, gaining 2 in 2011. No other council is so dominated by the Lib Dems. They also hold all six county council seats in the constituency and even managed to top the poll locally in the super-low turnout Police and Crime Commissioner elections held last year. The Lib Dem machine in Eastleigh is infamous for its effectiveness and ruthlessness at Lib Dem ‘pavement politics’, the art of taking to the streets and campaigning viscerally on local issues. So effective is the Lib Dem machine that local businesses advertise on the back of their leaflets due to their reach. Having such a strong activist base and so many councillors gives the Lib Dems a strong advantage in terms of knowledge of the seat and voting data, something the party exploits.
At the last election the result had been as follows:
Chris Huhne (Liberal Democrat) 46.5%
Maria Hutchings (Conservative) 39.3%
Leo Barraclough (Labour) 9.6%
Ray Finch (UKIP) 3.6%
The candidates and the campaign
The four most notable candidates (in order of their party’s performance in the 2010 election) were:
Mike Thornton (Liberal Democrats). The Lib Dems took the safe route with the selection of their candidate in the form of Mike Thornton. Thornton is a local councillor, which gave them the opportunity to localise the contest somewhat and avoid the associations with Nick Clegg that would have happened if the Lib Dems had run a Westminster insider. Some on the campaign trail said he was boring, but this also meant he was uncontroversial.
During the campaign it seemed as if the entire Lib Dem activist base had decamped to Eastleigh for the month. The Lib Dems have traditionally been very good at targeting seats they hoped to win and highly effective at by-elections. They are very good at focusing a campaign on local issues – in this particular case opposition to a local housing development project in a classic piece of British NIMBYism (Not In My BackYard). While all parties notionally support increasing the housing stock nationally in practice at a local level people tend to think that the houses should be somewhere else! This strategy was masterminded by former Lib Dem Chief Executive Chris (now Lord) Rennard and is known as ‘Rennardism’ in some circles. In a twist of fate for the Lib Dems, Rennard was publicly accused of sexual harassment by 10 female former Lib Dem activists during the campaign with the intimation that this is why he lost his position as Chief Exec. The Rennard allegations created significant questions for the leadership, with their knowledge of the allegations being a key question. Rumours about Rennard had circulated in the Westminster village for years, but there had never been proof. Clegg’s claim on the Sunday prior to the by-election that he had not heard the allegations before therefore stretched credibility, and he quickly had to release a statement to the effect that he had heard rumours but nothing more. The Lib Dems were therefore faced an ironic situation where they may have lost the by-election due to the behaviour of Chris Rennard, a man who had previously been seen as responsible for many historic Lib Dem by-election wins. Nonetheless the party broadly remained the favourite, though not overwhelmingly so, during the campaign.
Maria Hutchings (Conservative). The Conservatives once again ran their candidate from 2010, Maria Hutchings, a local businesswoman. This was unsurprising given that the party needed a candidate with local credentials to take on the Liberal Democrat strategy of localised pavement politics. With the party having no local councillors Hutchings almost certainly represented the person in the party who knew the seat and its voters the best.
Hutchings was on the right of the party and stated during the campaign that she would have voted against the government’s recent same-sex marriage bill, a source of consternation on the Conservative backbenches and amongst party activists. She also stated that she would have voted for a motion backed by many Conservative rebels in the Commons for a referendum on European Union membership, another source of great division in the heavily Eurosceptic party. She also uttered some statements which were seen as controversial, such as stating that she had sent her son to an independent (fee-paying) school because he was gifted and wanted to be a surgeon and therefore the right kind of education for him would be “impossible” to find in the state system. This was in contrast to Thornton, whose daughter had had a state education and who is now currently studying Medicine! Hutchings also failed to attend two hustings (local Q&A sessions) for the candidates, the first time apparently because she was campaigning with Cameron, the second because she was “meeting with voters”. This led to allegations from her opponents that the party was trying to ‘hide her’ away.
John O’Farrell (Labour). In the 1994 by-election Labour had succeeded in coming second in Eastleigh, beating the Conservatives into third place. As recently as 2005 the party could still pull in more than 20% of the vote, but their vote had collapsed to less than half that in 2010. While no one expected Labour to win the by-election unless extremely lucky, there was an opportunity here to give a sense of momentum by winning back tactical voters from the Lib Dems, and put down a marker that Labour were viable in the South of England outside London and a few urban conurbations, the weakest area for the party. Compared to the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, the party took a radically different tack in its approach to candidate selection, however, selecting John O’Farrell, a comedian, television broadcaster and writer, who lives in Clapham, South London. O’Farrell is best known for his appearances on comedy panel shows such as Have I Got News for You. He has run for parliament before – running in 2001 in a Conservative safe seat, he is also known in Labour circles for his bestselling book Things Can Only Get Better: Eighteen Miserable Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter. The book is a memoir tracing the eighteen years of opposition that Labour found itself in between 1979 and 1997 and O’Farrell’s story is a story familiar to many Labour activists and to the party as a whole – that of the transition from radicalism to moderation.
O’Farrell’s campaign was predicated on suggesting that a Lib Dem or Conservative MP for Eastleigh was essentially the same thing as they would both be supporting the same government. Being a comedian his twitter feed included many humourous quips about the by-election. O’Farrell is well known and popular within the Labour Party and I suspect his candidacy helped to galvanise supporters and donors in favour of his campaign. During the campaign O’Farrell was attacked for excerpts from his bestselling memoir when he spoke about a momentary glee on hearing about the 1984 bombing of the Conservative Party conference by the IRA and of supporting the Argentines in the Fawklands War. In the book O’Farrell highlights these as examples of what he sees as the idiocy of radical knee-jerk politics and explains that he is now disgusted by both views but this was still used as a stick to beat him with. Perhaps more damagingly however, friends of mine who were campaigning on the ground say that Eastleigh voters appeared to feel that in nominating a South London based Comedian Labour were not taking the by-election ‘seriously’.
Diane James (UKIP). UKIP nominated Diane James, a councillor and healthcare expert from Waverley in Surrey, originally elected as an independent, James had later joined UKIP. Eastleigh had a special resonance for UKIP as during the 1994 by-election their candidate had been none other than Nigel Farage, their current leader. Farage turned down the opportunity to campaign in the seat again, however.
UKIP ran a surprisingly slick campaign in Eastleigh, and managed to succeed in gaining momentum as the campaign went on. The party nonetheless gained controversy when its leaflets claimed that when immigration laws are relaxed later this year 4 million Bulgarians would come to the UK (the population of Bulgaria is 7.4 million, so this would represent a very large number indeed!) but this did not seem to hurt the party. On Election Day the party pulled ahead of the Conservatives in the betting odds and there were many rumours of a late surge for the party.
In the grand tradition of British by-elections many minor party, fringe and joke party candidates stood. In all 14 candidates stood. The others were Danny Stupple, an independent standing on an anti-gay marriage platform, Michael Walters for the English Democrats, Darren Proctor for the far-left Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition and Kevin Milburn for the Christian Party. The National Health Action Party, a single-issue party that has gained some media attention for its opposition to NHS privatisation and particularly the government’s controversial new health law stood a candidate, Dr. Iain MacLennan, for the first time. Jim Duggan stood for the Peace Party, Colin Bex stood for the Wessex Regionalists and Ray Hall ran for the Beer, Baccy and Crumpet party, a single issue party which campaigns against pub closures and for the rural way of life. By-election favourites, the Official Monster Raving Looney Party, a joke party that dates back to the 1960s, ran their leader Alan “Howling Laud” Hope. Finally perennial by-election candidate, David Bishop, stood under the latest of his Elvis Presley themed joke labels, ‘Elvis Loves Pets’.
Five polls were carried out during the campaign. Three showed the Lib Dems ahead by 3-5% and two showed the Conservatives ahead by 3-4%. The most notable thing from the polls was the fall in the Labour vote and the increase in the UKIP vote. The last poll of the campaign, by Populus, showed Lib Dems 33%, Conservatives 28%, UKIP 21%, Labour 12% and Others 6%.
Mike Thornton (Liberal Democrat) 32.06% (-14.44%)
Diane James (UKIP) 27.80% (+24.20%)
Maria Hutchings (Conservative) 25.37% (-13.93%)
John O’Farrell (Labour) 9.82% (+0.22%)
Danny Stupple (Ind) 1.85%
Iain Maclennan (National Health Action) 0.94%
Ray Hall (Beer, Baccy and Crumpet Party) 0.56%
Kevin Milburn (Christian) 0.39%
Howling Laud Hope (OMRLP) 0.33%
Jim Duggan (Peace) 0.31%
David Bishop (Elvis Loves Pets) 0.17%
Michael Walters (ED) 0.17% (-0.33%)
Daz Procter (TUSC) 0.15%
Colin Bex (Wessex Regionalist) 0.07%
Turnout was 52.8%, down by 16.5% from 2010 but still a very healthy turnout for a by-election.
The Lib Dems therefore succeeded in holding their seat, something which they are exceptionally happy about. Nick Clegg described the victory as “stunning”. The Lib Dem victory does indeed have much to commend it. Despite the hard times of coalition, the Rennard scandal, the jail term of Chris Huhne which had started the whole by-election the Lib Dems had succeeded in running a well-targeted, slick campaign won on local issues, with a solid dependable local candidate. This will be the model the Lib Dems will pursue in 2015 and on this by-election gave them some confidence that they may save more seats than many expect. That said, this is a rather pyrrhic victory. The party still lost almost 15% of the vote compared to 2010, most likely to a combination of abstention of the historically unreliable Lib Dem vote and to UKIP, in the form of protest votes. In a sense they only won because the Conservatives lost almost as much of their vote as they did, and the Lib Dem loss is in line with national opinion polls too. According to an ‘exit poll’ of sorts, (with a low sample, 760) by Conservative Party election expert Lord Ashcroft, 43% of Lib Dem voters voted for the party tactically suggesting that despite the Coalition the party successfully retained Labour tactical voters. 26% of Lib Dem voters also stated that the main reason they voted for the party was local services, totally unprompted. Only 43% of Lib Dem voters said they would ‘probably’ vote for the party in 2010, however now he is the MP Thornton will no doubt pursue the traditional Lib Dem strategy of working very hard as a local MP and building a strong personal vote, so they probably have the advantage in 2015.
UKIP also pulled off a victory of sorts. While they didn’t win the seat, their 27.8% of the vote represents their best every score in a parliamentary constituency, and they came within 4.3% of victory. This gives the party a continued feeling of momentum. According to the Ashcroft polling the party won roughly equal amounts of the Lib Dem and Conservative vote from 2010 (around a fifth in both cases) and 83% of their voters said they “unhappy with the party they usually support nationally” and three quarters said that they were “unhappy with all the main parties at the moment” further evidence that UKIP’s appeal is primarily anti-establishment and ‘plague on all your houses’ based. There does indeed appear to be a late surge element – 31% made up their minds in the last week, 18% on the last day. As with the Lib Dems only 43% said they would probably vote UKIP in 2015, with 10% saying they would likely vote Conservative.
The Conservatives are reeling. Coming in second would have been poor, but understandable, coming third puts the party in an extremely difficult position. The party is calling this a mid-term protest vote and noting that voters often vote against the government in these types of elections. While that’s true, the voters did elect a MP from a party that is in the government! The Conservatives have historically been poor at by-elections as the party is bad at targeting its campaign activities, and not as good at the ‘ground war’ aspect of a by-election as other parties. Sections of the party have also blamed Cameron for moving the party too far to the left and abandoning the party’s core vote to be picked up by UKIP. However as Professor Tim Bale, the leading academic expert in the Conservative Party, notes, the Conservatives have been attempting to ape UKIP for some time in many respects in the form of Cameron’s recent call for an EU referendum and the Home Secretary, Theresa May’s promise to cut immigration by another quarter. In Bale’s view by doing so the Conservatives could be creating the impression that UKIP’s concerns about both are perfectly valid and giving the party credibility, as he puts it “Rather than shooting Nigel Farage’s fox, all Cameron has done is feed it”. The whole argument also ignores that Maria Hutchings stood on a platform that was clearly right of the party leadership. Yet the party leadership is once again under significant pressure from its activists and backbenchers to shift right as a response, and Sunday’s right wing newspapers are replete with references to getting rid of the Human Rights Act, a particular object of hatred for the right-wing media.
Labour are the only one of the main three parties to have gained votes, but they remain below 10% of the vote. This is hardly the marker that they can win votes in the South of England which the party wanted. The party appears to have made a serious tactical misstep by selecting O’Farrell. Polls suggest that the party lost around half its support over the course of the campaign with most probably going to the Lib Dems, but some also likely going to abstention or UKIP. By running a comedian from South London Labour appear to have given the local electorate the idea that they were not taking Eastleigh seriously. The party will have to work harder to convince the electorate that it can succeed in the South of England – a particular focus will be on this year’s county council elections.
A parliamentary by-election was held in the British constituency of Bradford West on March 29, 2012. The seat, which covers parts of downtown Bradford as well as the Yorkshire city’s northwestern outskirts, was vacant following the resignation of Labour MP Marsha Singh, who had represented the seat since 1997, earlier in March.
Thus far, the by-elections to this Parliament have been uneventful affairs, boring by-elections fought in safe Labour seats across Britain (and Belfast West, which was hardly exciting). On paper, Bradford West was shaping up to be like all other by-elections in this Parliament’s lifespan. Covering parts of the textile centre of Bradford, the constituency is a poor multicultural working-class population with a long list of social problems and neighborhoods which are similar to some American inner-cities. The constituency includes the bulk of Bradford’s large Pakistani population which accounts for 35% of the seat’s population, which is also 38% Muslim and only 50% white British. The seat’s three downtown core wards are heavily Asian Muslim, but the seat also has a sizable white working-class electorate and a middle-class suburban base (Thornton & Allerton). The seat’s political history is surprisingly colourful. In 1997, Marsha Singh’s first election after a fractious nominating process, the seat was one of two seats in the country to record a swing to the Conservatives. Singh won, but with an 8.5% majority much smaller than his predecessor’s 19% majority in 1992. In 2010, Singh was reelected – this time recording a counter-cyclical swing against the Tories to Labour, taking a 14% majority.
Labour politics in Bradford West are said to be dominated by biradari networks (an Urdu word meaning ‘family’) which denotes an hierarchical system of clan politics dominated by connections and family ties to Mirpur, a city in Pakistan where most of Bradford’s Pakistanis hail from. Labour’s candidate, Imran Hussain, a deputy council leader, fitted the profile of biradari clan politics quite well. Hussain was certainly, on paper, the favourite to win a fairly safe Labour seat where the Conservatives have never staged a real challenge and where the LibDems were weak even before their post-Coalition electoral implosion.
Enter George Galloway, one of the most controversial politics in the country. Galloway, a former Labour MP, gained notoriety in 2003 for his staunch opposition to the Iraq war and his support for Palestine. Standing for the Respect Party, the charismatic and assertive Galloway knocked off Labour MP Oona King in the east London seat of Bethnal Green & Bow in 2005, but he was defeated when seeking reelection in 2010 in the new seat of Poplar and Limehouse, winning only 17.5% of the vote and third place. In 2011, he failed to win election to the Scottish Parliament standing for Respect.
Galloway was always going to make a presence in an otherwise boring by-election, but casual observers never guessed the impact he would have. Those with their ear on the grounds knew that something, however, was up. Galloway, running largely on his opposition to British military involvement in Afghanistan and benefiting from his strong popularity with the Muslim population, was able to motivate first-time voters, previous non-voters, Muslim voters who had always voted Labour and so forth. Galloway is still very popular with Muslims in Britain, who fondly remember his charismatic opposition to Iraq and Afghanistan as well as his fabled fights with interviewers and US Senators. Galloway seized on tensions in the Asian community concerning the system of biradari politics, which he was strongly critical of. On the sidelines, Galloway may have tried to exploit racial tensions and play a communitarian card by sending out a letter to voters “of the Muslim faith” which insinuated that Galloway – who is not Muslim – was somehow a better Muslim than Hussain.
Turnout was strong at 50%, still down 15% on 2010. The results were:
George Galloway (Respect) 55.89% (+52.83%)
Imran Hussain (Labour) 24.99% (-20.36%)
Jackie Whiteley (Conservative) 8.37% (-22.78%)
Jeanette Sunderland (LibDem) 4.59% (-7.08%)
Sonja McNally (UKIP) 3.31% (+1.31%)
Dawud Islam (Green) 1.47% (-0.85%)
Neil Craig (Democratic Nationalists) 1.05%
Howling Laud Hope (Monster Raving Loony Party) 0.34%
Galloway won a shocking victory, which was more than a narrow upset but rather a political earthquake. He scored a 36.6% swing from Labour to Respect, making this by-election one of the most historic by-elections in British political history since, perhaps, Simon Hughes’ landslide victory in the 1983 Bermondsey by-election against Labour. Galloway didn’t win just because of a turnout fluke, because turnout was very strong for a by-election. Reporters on the ground have indicated that he was able to mobilize first-time young Muslim voters, apathetic voters who had usually not bothered to vote in the past but also traditionally Labour Asian Muslim voters who were mobilized by Galloway. Galloway motivated voters by appearing as a radical anti-establishment candidate, opposed to the war in Afghanistan (obviously very unpopular in this type of constituency) and standing against politics as usual symbolized by Labour’s system of biradari clan politics. Labour has often tended to take Asian Muslim voters for granted and much has been written about this complacency in the context of Bradford. On March 29, that complacency and friends-and-neighbors system of clan politics in Bradford likely blew up in Labour’s face.
It certainly makes for a very bad result for Labour leader Ed Miliband, but it must not be forgotten that a lot of this huge upset is due to George Galloway’s personality. This won’t be a game-changing political event, because Respect simply isn’t a strong enough political force with any other well-known leaders besides Galloway (and maybe Salma Yaqoob) who could capitalize on an event like this. Galloway has an appeal to Muslim voters which his party doesn’t really have, because he is a superstar and political hero for a lot of younger Muslim voters in Britain. In Bradford West, Muslim turnout was likely very heavy and probably huge for Galloway. It would not surprise me if Hussain, ironically, was only able to hold Labour’s old white working-class voters.
Galloway’s win can be attributed to motivating a wide base on the issue of Afghanistan and anti-system opposition to politics-as-usual and by seizing on racial issues in the community including the issue of clan politics and Labour’s attitude towards Muslim voters. A good piece by Labour MP John Mann on LabourList says that Labour’s response in Asian areas were negative, and decries that the party had “no game plan” and fielded no Muslim, Urdu-speaking or hijab-wearing doorknockers.
Labour finds itself with a pie in its face, but the Tories are hardly coming out any better. The Tories did terribly, winning only 8.4% of the vote – losing nearly 23% since 2010. Some Conservatives might have voted strategically for Galloway to stick one to Labour, but in large part it seems like a repeat of a mayoral election in Tower Hamlets in 2010 when Tories simply did not seem to show up. The Tories aren’t strong in Bradford West, but they certainly have a floor (perhaps something like 25-30%) which is still much higher than high single-digits! Their turnout was probably particularly awful, because I doubt a whole load of Conservative voters in Bradford could have stomached voting for Galloway.
The LibDems did awfully as well, but such is to be expected at this point. The party’s performance in by-elections thus far is only marginally more impressive than the FDP’s polling numbers in Germany.
A by-election in the Westminster Northern Irish constituency of Belfast West was held on June 9, 2011. The by-election was sparked by the resignation of the constituency’s Sinn Féin MP Gerry Adams in December 2010 in order to run (and win) for a seat in the Irish Dáil. Belfast West, Sinn Féin’s stronghold has been held by Gerry Adams since 1997 and prior to that between 1983 and 1992.
Belfast West is by far the most heavily Catholic seat in Northern Ireland, with a 82.7% Catholic community background in the 2001 census and only 16.2% having a Protestant community background. It is also the poorest seat in Northern Ireland, with 80% of census areas in the constituency being amongst the poorest 20% in Northern Ireland. The population is largely young and poorly educated. Belfast West includes the heavily Catholic working-class areas of Lower Falls and Upper Falls, which both split 4-1 in Sinn Féin’s favour against the SDLP in the 2011 local elections. The constituency also expands to include most of the Court electoral area, more specifically the Shankhill area, which is a heavily Protestant (and very poor) neighborhood north of the barricades. In 2011, the Court district elected 3 Democratic Unionists, one Unionist independent and one Progressive Unionist. The seat has been held since 1966 by nationalists, being represented by Gerry Fitt who won the seat in 1966 as a Republican Labour candidate, founded the SDLP in 1970 and left the SDLP in 1979 to sit as an independent. Fitt was defeated by Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams in 1983, who was himself defeated on a wave of tactical voting and rare cross-community voting by the SDLP’s Joe Hendron, one of the few Northern Irish politicians to enjoy a cross-community appeal. Hendron was defeated by Adams in 1997, who increased his margins in every election since to reach a record high of 71% of the vote and a 54.7% majority in 2010. Since 2007, Sinn Féin’s mastery of vote management has allowed them to win 5 out of the 6 Assembly seats with the SDLP’s Alex Attwood (the Environment Minister) winning the last seat. The DUP lost its seat here in the 2007 elections.
The candidates were Sinn Féin MLA Paul Maskey, SDLP MLA Alex Attwood and DUP councillor Brian Kingston who were joined by 2011 Assembly candidate Bill Manwaring for the UUP (the UUP won 4.2% in 2011), 19-year old student Aaron McIntyre for the Alliance and Gerry Carroll of the far-left People Before Profit which won 4.8% in 2011, their second best showing in Northern Ireland after Foyle. The by-election was boring, and turnout was 37.53%. Turnout in the Protestant areas must have been terrible, given that turnout there is always lower than in the Falls area.
Paul Maskey (SF) 70.63% (-0.45%)
Alex Attwood (SDLP) 13.45% (-2.92%)
Gerry Carroll (PBP) 7.62% (+7.62%)
Brian Kingston (DUP) 6.06% (-1.52%)
Bill Manwarring (UUP) 1.68% (-1.43%)
Aaron McIntyre (Alliance) 0.53% (-1.32%)
Shockingly unsurprising results, with Sinn Féin holding the seat with a huge majority (57.1%, the largest ever majority for any party in this constituency) though losing a bit of votes from the 2010 Gerry Adams high, though its showing is stronger than its 66% result in the May elections. Aside from the UUP’s disastrous result and the overall piss-poor showing of the Unionists, the main noteworthy result is Gerry Carroll’s very strong showing for the PBP which managed to place third and hold its deposit.
Assembly elections were held in Northern Ireland on May 5, 2011 as part of the UK election bonanza, covered in earlier posts which you’ll find scrolling down this page. Northern Ireland’s Assembly has 108 seats elected by STV in 18-multi member constituencies which elect 6 MLAs each. Given Northern Ireland’s troubled history, Northern Ireland is a consociational democracy, and a consociational democracy which takes the word consociationalism to its true meaning. The Northern Irish executive, led by a First Minister and Deputy Minister forming a powerful duo and various ministers, is neither elected through popular vote nor is it a traditional government seeking confidence of the Assembly. Rather, the makeup of the power-sharing executive is determined by the d’Hondt PR formula and cabinet seats are apportioned based on the number of seats held by a party in the Assembly. The largest party of the largest community gets the office of First Minister, while the largest party of the minority community gets the office of Deputy First Minister.
When talking Northern Ireland, we often talk in terms of communities. Politics is also tightly regimented along lines of community. Northern Irish parties are, with almost all parties identified to said communities. The Protestant or Unionist side includes the Democratic Unionist (DUP) and Ulster Unionist (UUP) parties with two smaller parties, the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) and the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV). The DUP, led by the famous Reverend Ian Paisley between 1971 and 2008, was originally the more radical of the two main Unionist parties and the more right-wing of the two, being based in the evangelical Free Presbyterian Church. The DUP originally opposed power-sharing deals, but the growing influence of younger pragmatists within the party led to it to accept power-sharing, culminating in Paisley becoming FM in 2007. The UUP, long the dominant party of Unionist politics (and Northern Ireland), has been in terminal state since 2007 at the earliest and in bad straits for most of the twenty-first century as the DUP has outplaced it as the largest Unionist party. The UUP is often seen as the most moderate party, largely due to the work of its ex-leader David Trimble in favour of the Good Friday Agreement. The party has had a hard time adapting to life as the second fiddle in Unionist politics, and its desperate and ultimately failed linkup with the Conservative Party in 2009-2010 was one of their leadership’s desperate moves. The smaller parties, PUP and TUV, are much smaller in weight. The PUP is the only left-wing Unionist party, and is linked to the UVF paramilitary – a linkup which has divided the party and led to its only MLA walking out of the party in 2010. The TUV was founded in 2007 by former DUP MEP Jim Allister as a radical Unionist party opposed to power-sharing. Allister did well in the 2009 Euros, winning nearly 14%, but the TUV has since turned into an also-ran and personal machine for Allister.
On the Catholic or Nationalist side, the two parties are Sinn Féin (SF) and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). SF, which we all know well, is the more left-wing and ‘republican’ of the two parties and was pretty much the political wing of the IRA. SF’s participation in the peace process was vital, and it has enjoyed more and more success as it moderated its position, allowing it to become the largest of the nationalist parties. The SDLP conciliates moderate nationalism with social democracy, and played a vital role in bringing SF to the table and making the power-sharing agreements work. Since then, however, the SDLP has suffered loses – like the UUP – and is now the second largest nationalist party. However, unlike the UUP which is still struggling to grasp that reality, SDLP has had less problems and it isn’t in a terminal condition.
The liberal Alliance Party (APNI) is a non-sectarian, cross-community liberal party. The Alliance is not exceptionally strong, but APNI candidate Naomi Long stunningly defeated DUP First Minister Peter Robinson in his East Belfast constituency in the 2010 general election. Furthermore, APNI was allowed a seat at the table – David Ford as Justice Minister – an exception to the d’Hondt formula of cabinet allocation. The Green Party (GPNI) also has one seat in the Assembly, and they’re cross-community as well.
Here are the results, marked by a low turnout of 54.5%
DUP 30% (-0.1%) winning 38 seats (+2)
SF 26.9% (+0.7%) winning 29 seats (+1)
SDLP 14.2% (-1%) winning 14 seats (-2)
UUP 13.2% (-1.7%) winning 16 seats (-2)
Alliance 7.7% (+2.5%) winning 8 seats (+1)
TUV 2.5% (+2.5%) winning 1 seat (+1)
Green 0.9% (-0.8%) winning 1 seat (nc)
PBPA 0.8% (+0.7%) winning 0 seats (nc)
UKIP 0.6% (+0.4%) winning 0 seats (nc)
PUP 0.2% (-0.4%) winning 0 seats (-1)
Independents winning 1 seat (nc)
(56 Unionists vs. 43 Nationalists, +1 Unionist and -1 Nationalist)
The overarching trend here is stability. There has been no drastic movements, with no party gaining over 2.5% more than its 2007 share of the popular vote and with no party losing or gaining more than 2 seats. The DUP remains the largest party and gains two seats, while Sinn Féin gained one seat. The second fiddle party within each community, SDLP and UUP, suffered loses (again). The Alliance gained the most, but fell short of gaining another seat in North Down by a handful of votes, that last seat falling to the Greens who held their seat there despite the retirement of the popular Green MLA there. Jim Allister’s TUV actually did very poorly, down further from its rather disastrous 4% in the 2010 GE. But Allister was elected on the last count in North Antrim.
Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness had hoped to become First Minister after these elections, which would have required SF placing first ahead of the DUP which it did in 2009 and 2010. But the DUP remained rather comfortably ahead of SF, and did roughly 5% better than in 2010. In this story, one of the main actors is Peter Robinson, the comeback kid. The First Minister had a rough ride in 2009 and 2010, with his wife Iris (a former MP and MLA) being embroiled in a sex scandal, a series of bad things which culminated in Robinson shockingly losing his East Belfast Westminster seat to the Alliance’s Naomi Long in May 2010. Since then, Robinson has been on the way back and his efforts paid off. With 28% first preference votes, he easily topped the poll in East Belfast and led the DUP to a strong showing after the 2009 disaster (at Jim Allister’s hands) and the setback of 2010.
The SDLP and UUP both suffered loses for the second consecutive election. There’s no hiding from the fact that both of these parties are in dire straits and must reinvent themselves in a way which prevents them falling further down the road of irrelevance. Their respective positions seem confused, and probably confusing to voters and members. The overall picture for the SDLP is bad, but not all that bad as it still managed to top the poll in South Down and Foyle (though not by a whole lot, especially in Foyle). The picture for the UUP is bad, and Tom Elliott’s recent outburst at his count in Fermanagh and South Tyrone only makes the whole thing worst. Elliott, the UUP’s leader since last year, has made no secret of his conservatism and his positioning within the right of the party (rather than, say, the civic unionism of David Trimble and Sylvia Hermon). Furthermore, in Unionist politics, competition for ‘ethnic intransigence’ seems to be a constant, and Elliott’s goal seems to be pushing the UUP into a TUV-lite position to the right of the growingly pragmatic DUP. At his count, Elliott attacked the “traitorous scum of Sinn Féin” and Shinners wearing “the flag of a foreign nation”. Perhaps Mr. Elliott should study the results of the TUV before acting like a Unionist dinosaur.
Northern Ireland seems to be consolidating into a two-party DUP and SF system, with the SDLP and UUP risking long-term extinction or irrelevance if such trends continue.
The Alliance did well, gaining a second seat in East Belfast where it won 26.3% of the overall first preferences, up 7.5% on its 2007 performance (the DUP won 44.1%, up 6.4% since 2007, in East Belfast). As aforementioned, it fell short of a second seat in North Down, that seat instead being held by Steven Agnew for the Greens. Agnew won roughly 8% of first prefs and was elected on the last count. The popular Alliance-turned-Indie-turned-Green Brian Wilson had won the GPNI’s first seat there in 2007, likely due to a large personal vote, but retired this year. His wife Anne was the APNI candidate who fell short of that seat, ironically enough. As a final note about North Down, the DUP did quite well there with 44% (up 10%) against a mere 10% for the UUP which has apparently not recovered from the Sylvia Hermon episode of 2010.
Jim Allister’s TUV did horribly, its paltry 2.5% result being the party’s lowest result in its brief existence. Even in Allister’s North Antrim, the TUV won only 12% of first prefs (10% for Allister himself), lower than the 16.8% he won there in 2010. Yet, Allister managed election on the ninth count. The TUV’s low showing shows the low weight of radical unionism in Northern Ireland, and Allister’s platform of being a thorn in the side of the executive probably won’t amount to much.
In East Belfast, both the PUP-turned-Indie incumbent Dawn Purvis and the PUP’s leader Brian Ervine lost out. Purvis was eliminated on the final count, after polling 5.3% of first prefs. Ervine won 4.6% of first prefs and was eliminated on the tenth count, right before Purvis. An Independent, David McClarty, was elected in East Londonderry on the seventh count with 8.6% of first prefs. McClarty ran as an independent after being deselected by the UUP. The UUP will now try to win him back (in order to get a second cabinet seat), but Elliott’s outburst won’t help considering McClarty commented that they made Jim Allister look like the Dalai Lama.
Of the smaller parties, the far-left PBPA won 5% in West Belfast and 8% in its Foyle stronghold but transfers weren’t good enough to get it a seat there. UKIP won 5.6% in South Down, where its candidate is a local councillor.
The new cabinet will have a DUP FM, a SF Deputy FM alongside 4 DUP ministers, 3 SF ministers, and one minister each from UUP, SDLP and Alliance. The Alliance will likely have two ministries overall, though, with David Ford likely to hold his Justice portfolio. If McClarty joined back up with the UUP, the UUP would get a second seat at APNI’s expense. The Alliance could take such matters into court, as could the UUP if they only get one ministries to the APNI’s two considering the APNI is half the size of the UUP.
Local election counts are underway, with the same trends showing up: DUP and SF stable, SDLP and UUP loses, Alliance gains.
Continuing from yesterday’s post on elections to devolved assemblies in Scotland and Wales, today comes an overview of the results of local elections in England as well as an overview of the AV referendum held on May 5.
In the patchwork of English local government, 279 councils of various types were up for reelection and in half the entirety was up and in the other half only a third was up. In all 36 metropolitan boroughs, a third was up. In 30 unitary authorities (UAs) the entirety was up while in 19 UAs only a third was up. In 126 district authorities, the whole council was up and in 68 districts a third was up. Finally, five direct mayoral elections were held. I believe these particular seats were last contested in 2007, though I’m probably wrong. These elections are notable for being the first held under a Tory government in years, and the first locals in a very, very long time where the LibDems are in government. As you all know, government hasn’t been a good experience for LibDems.
The headline results are:
Conservative 157 councils (+4) and 4820 councillors (+81)
Labour 57 councils (+26) and 2392 councillors (+800)
LibDems 10 councils (-9) and 1056 councillors (-695)
Residents Association 1 council (nc) and 48 councillors (-3)
Others 0 councils (-1) and 602 councillors (-177)
Green 78 councillors (+13)
Liberal 8 councillors (-2)
UKIP 7 councillors (nc)
Boston Bypass Indies 0 councils (-1) and 4 councillors (-14)
BNP 2 councillors (-11)
EDs 2 councillors (+1)
Independent Community and Health Concern 1 councillor (-3)
The BBC’s results page has fuller details on all councils. The overall picture is favourable to Labour, slightly favourable to the Tories and a disaster for the Liberal Democrats. The LibDems have obviously been hit for their participation in cabinet, but the Conservatives themselves haven’t suffered all that much from the government’s relative unpopularity. It has kept its base intact, which obviously can’t be said of the LibDems.
In the details, the LibDems suffered numerous routs in various cities in northern England where they had managed to build themselves a base in local government. They had already lost Liverpool, which they had held since 1998, in 2010, and suffered an utter rout there after a pathetic campaign which allowed Labour to win a supermajority, picking up 11 seats for a total of 62 against 22 LibDems. A pitiful result. Labour picked up its largest target in the region, Newcastle, held by the LibDems since 2004, with a gain of 10 seats from the LibDems to take 43 seats against 32 LibDems. In Sheffield (Clegg’s home turf), governed by the LibDems since 2008, Labour gained 9 seats to take 49 seats against 32 LibDems and enough for absolute control. I haven’t run through all the details, but the general word is that the LibDems seem to have performed better in places where contests were Tory/LD.
When Nick Clegg accepted to form the ill-fated coalition with David Cameron, holding a referendum on electoral reform was one of his demands. If successful, general elections would have been held under the alternative vote (AV) system rather than the current FPTP system. AV is used in Australia for elections to the House of Representatives and in some local elections in the US, where it is known as IRV. The Wikipedia page on AV/IRV explains the system in more detail, and Britain-vote’s guide to AV is well worth reading as well.
As a very brief overview, an AV/IRV system keeps single-member constituencies but instead of having the candidate winning the most votes win outright, voters must rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate has 50%+1, the lowest placed candidate is eliminated and his votes redistributed. This process continues until a candidate has 50%+1 or, alternatively, when there are only two candidates left standing. In Australia, voters are required to preference all candidates (those who don’t have their ballots voided) whereas the proposed UK-AV did not require voters to preference all candidates. The guide to AV, linked above, explains the details of the working and of the effects of AV on elections in much more breadth.
AV is not proportional representation in the pure sense of PR. AV does not lead to more proportional elections than FPTP, and in some cases it might lead to some results which are even more disproportionate than FPTP. AV’s main advantage, for its proponents, is that winners elected under AV have a much broader base of support or, in Australia, 50%+1 support. But they’re not necessarily the “most liked” candidate, rather they often tend to be the “least disliked” candidate. As to the above point of AV not being PR in the pure sense of PR, Australia provides a good example as the Greens hold only one seat out of 150 even if they polled nearly 12%. Research by the BBC on the the effects of AV on past British elections shows that while the LibDems would be stronger they would not be represented to their actual weight (especially in years such as 1983). Furthermore, in 1997, the Tory rout would have been an absolute humiliation if AV has been used as AV allows voters who hate one party (eg; LibDem and Labour voters who were anti-Tory in 1997) to coalesce even more than under FPTP.
Both campaigns were pretty atrocious, though I personally found the no campaign even more demagogic and atrocious through its use of strawmen arguments or worthless demagogic drivel. One NO2AV ad could basically be summarized as “AV is way too difficult, so it sucks”. I guess the reason why both yes and no campaigns resorted to such demagoguery and drivel is that electoral reform is a non-issue for most people aside from psephologist, some hardcore partisans and people who read books on such stuff and throw hissy fits because the 1986 election in country X was not proportional. Most voters don’t care much about such stuff, a lot don’t understand or don’t bother to understand proposed changes and those who have minimal interest will be easily convinced by lies and deceit rather than by thought-out 10-page papers arguing both sides. In most cases, finally, unless voters have memory of a very disproportional election not too far back, they’ll lean heavily in favour of the status-quo (FPTP). I also believe wording of the question matters somewhat. This question asked ‘do you want the United Kingdom to adopt the ‘alternative vote’ system instead of the current ‘first past the post’ system for electing Members of Parliament to the House of Commons?’. My opinion is that using words like ‘current [...] system’ or similar phrases do hold sway for the low-information voters who do bother to vote and influences them to favour said ‘current system’.
In this particular referendum, the LibDems supported the yes and the Tories supported the no. Labour doesn’t have an official position, but Ed Miliband supported the yes. Smaller parties such as the SNP, Plaid, SDLP, Greenies, APNI, UKIP and Scottish Greens supported the yes. The DUP, BNP, UUP and GPNI opposed AV. A handful of voters, who I wager are overwhelmingly well-informed PR partisans, opposed AV because it wasn’t proportional enough.
Turnout was 42%, and results were as follows:
The Guardian has a cool interactive shaded map of results by counting area.
Opposition was highest in England, and somewhat lower in Scotland and Wales (but still over 60% opposed) and lowest (56% no) in Northern Ireland. Scotland and Wales are used to some form of non-FPTP system. Northern Ireland uses STV for all elections except Westminster. Opposition was very high in Conservative rural England, often over 70% opposed, but also significantly high in working-class areas throughout England.
Support was highest in urban areas, or in areas with significant concentrations of students. Oxford and Cambridge voted 54% in favour, while more or less well-off urban areas in Glasgow and Edinburgh voted in favour. In London, areas which voted in favour are not, in general, particularly wealthy but a lot seem to have significant bobo-type populations but also large deprived immigrant populations. The pattern of areas with a highly educated population or a young population leaning more heavily in favour of electoral reform seems to be a constant throughout those places which have held referendums on such matters.
Elections for the devolved Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly were held on May 5 in Scotland and Wales, alongside an AV referendum, English and North Irish locals, a Westminster by-election and elections to the Northern Irish Assembly.
AV and Northern Irish count is under way, and results for the English locals are being counted. A post on those results will be up when it’s all done. Results have been declared, however, for Scotland and Wales.
A magnificent and very complete preview of sorts, better than anything I could create, is on the Britain-votes blog. Scotland’s devolved administration had been led by First Minister Alex Salmond of the Scottish National Party (SNP) since the 2007 election, Scotland’s devolved Parliament having been ruled by Labour since its creation in 1999. Though the SNP did well in the 2009 European elections, it did poorly in the GE in 2010 and was widely thought to be headed to certain defeat at the hands of Labour, as Scottish Labour picked up the inevitable seeds laid by the unpopularity of the Tory-LibDem coalition in Westminster. Labour had a large lead over the SNP in opinion polls at the outset, but they floundered it away.
Scottish Labour leader, Iain Gray, was seen as gray and uninspiring. So was his campaign. Labour seemed to have campaigned for Holyrood as if these were local elections, with systematic votes against the Westminster government. However, devolved elections in Scotland and Wales are not local elections anymore, rather they are equivalent to Canadian provincial elections or German land elections. As thus, Salmond was able to play on his popularity (his +33% approval is the highest of any of the 4 leaders) and really build up a strong vote of confidence in his favour. The SNP’s campaign played heavily on Salmond, and the SNP apparently appeared on ballots as ‘SNP – Alex Salmond for First Minister’. And so the SNP rocketed ahead of Labour in the final weeks. The Conservatives have a small but rather solid base in Scotland. But the Liberal Democrats, which had been until the SNP established itself in 2007 one of the main “non-Labour” opposition forces in Scotland and so held considerable weight in Scottish politics, collapsed. They have been hurt a lot in Scotland (and throughout the UK) for their participation as the junior partner in the Cameron-Clegg coalition. Scottish LibDems are quite independent from the mother party, but they’re guilty by association.
The preview post explains Scotland’s MMP electoral system, with 73 constituency FPTP seats and 56 regional seats allocated to ‘equalize’ representation according to votes cast. Therefore, parties doing excessively poorly in the FPTP seats will be compensated by regional seats.
|Con %||+/−||Con seats||+/−||Reg %||+/−||Reg seats||+/−||Total||+/−|
With 69 seats, the SNP has won an absolute majority, made even larger by two pro-independence Greenies and one left-wing ex-SNP nationalist, Margo MacDonald, reelected as an independent in the Lothians region. 45% is by far the SNP’s biggest vote share ever in Scotland, and makes this election a resounding victory for Salmond and the SNP. An overall majority notably allows the SNP to pass legislation organizing an independence referendum, an electoral promise of the SNP. But in a party traditionally divided between ‘fundamentalists’ and ‘gradualists’, Salmond seems to be playing the gradualist path as his victory speech made it sound as if the SNP would rather work step-by-step, gain by gain rather than going to hold a referendum right away.
The SNP’s victory came much at the expense of the LibDems, who lost all its seats in mainland Scotland and all of them to the SNP. Most notably, the party’s traditional heartlands in the Highlands and in Aberdeenshire fell to the SNP on a huge swing towards the SNP. The SNP, notably, represents the areas covered by the Westminster constituencies of former LibDem leaders Charles Kennedy and Ming Campbell. The LibDems were confined to the old Liberal strongholds in Orkney and Shetland. In other constituencies, the LibDem vote’s collapse largely benefited the SNP. Labour was unable to make even minor gains in the national vote share, and perhaps most remarkably its traditional Scottish heartland in densely populated industrial central Scotland and Glasgow was infiltrated throughout by the SNP. The SNP now holds the most seats in Glasgow – traditionally a strongly Labour area – and all but one seat in Edinburgh is held by the SNP. Iain Gray managed to hold his seat, which saw a smaller swing towards the SNP, with a 151-vote majority. Labour is now almost entirely shut out north of Glasgow and central Scotland, with the SNP reigning supreme with large majorities in the vast majority of seats in the Highlands and North East. The Conservatives lost votes and seats, the LibDems collapsed to a pitiful 5% on the list vote and the Greens failed to make any significant gains anywhere.
Once again, a plug for Britain-vote’s excellent guide to the Welsh elections offered here.
Wales is the Labour heartland of Britain since the 1920s and Labour has been the largest party in all elections since then save for the 2009 Euros Labour rout. Labour did badly in the 2007 elections because of Blair’s unpopularity, and needed to form a coalition with Plaid in order to govern. Plaid had sought a coalition with the Tories and LibDems, but ended up forming the ‘One Wales’ coalition with Labour. Labour’s First Minister, Rhodri Morgan, in office since 2000, stepped down in 2009 and was replaced by Carwyn Jones. Jones is seen to be a competent and capable leader, able to be an advocate for Wales against the unpopular the Tory-LibDem coalition in Westminster. Unsurprisingly, Labour polled well throughout the campaign while Plaid polled below its mildly successful 2007 showing.
The preview post explains Wales’ MMP electoral system, with 40 constituency FPTP seats and 20 regional seats allocated to ‘equalize’ representation according to votes cast. Therefore, parties doing excessively poorly in the FPTP seats will be compensated by regional seats.
|Con %||+/−||Con seats||+/−||Reg %||+/−||Reg seats||+/−||Total||+/−|
Labour’s vote increased substantially, but gained only four seats overall as a lot of that vote piled up in the Valleys, an intensely Labour area. Labour gained Blaenau Gwent (a very working-class area in the Valleys) from retiring leftie independent Trish Law (who gained the seat in a by-election in a 2005 election, after her late husband, Peter Law, an ambitious Labour AM turned into populist left-wing independent died). It wasn’t much of a contest, as Trish Law retired and the Law-outfit (People’s Voice) is in ruins and ran an outsider who polled 18.8% to Labour’s 64%. Outside of that, it gained Cardiff Central from the LibDems, Cardiff North from the Tories and Llanelli from Plaid. Its majorities in the Valleys are amusingly but unsurprisingly massive. But Labour failed to gain target seats from the Tories in Pembrokeshire, and therefore didn’t win the absolute majority it wanted. It could form a stable minority or continue its deal with Plaid for another term.
The Conservatives managed to do quite well, after a decent showing in 2007 where it had the advantage of opposition, its supporters turned up and allowed it to hold its ground well. It picked up Aberconwy from Plaid, where Plaid was hurt by the retirement of Gareth Jones, who had won in 2007 only thanks to a large personal vote. It also picked up Montgomeryshire from the LibDems, on a large 9.5% swing from LibDems to Tories.
Plaid did poorly, but its strongholds in Y Fro Gymraeg are solid enough to withstand such loses. It did lose Llanelli to Labour, and its vote fell slightly in three of its five constituency seats. In Gwynedd, the local populist party Llais Gwynedd managed to poll 15.5%, largely at Plaid’s expense.
The Liberal Democrats lost two constituency seats and one seat overall, though from my vintage point I’m surprised that their overall vote share didn’t suffer more than it did.
UKIP had hoped to make a breakthrough in Wales, but polled only 4.6% (up 0.7%) on the regional lists and failed to win a seat. The BNP’s vote fell nearly 2% from its strong 4% showing in 2007. The Greens similarly failed to make a breakthrough, stagnating at 3.4% of the regional list vote.
A post on the results in Northern Ireland, England and the UK-wide AV vote will follow once those results are done. At this stage, with 94% declared, no to AV wins 70-30. Counting will be held tonight in the Leicester South by-election.
The first by-election of the British Parliament since the May 2010 general election took place yesterday, January 13, in Oldham East and Saddleworth. This by-election came in somewhat unique circumstances, after an election court voided the result of the original vote in May 2010 after LibDem candidate Elwyn Watkins, who lost by 103 votes in May, petitioned for the result to be voided based on the nasty campaigning between former Labour MP Phil Woolas and Elwyn Watkins back in May. Attacks on Watkins by Woolas apparently breached the terms of the Representation of the People Act 1983 by making false statements about his personal character. Woolas, known not only for his controversial statements on Islam, also has a long history of making contests very nasty since 1995.
Oldham East and Saddleworth, which basically covers the eastern part of the largely working-class town of Oldham in addition to the middle-class commuter town of Saddleworth was created in 1997. Prior to that, most of it had been in Littleborough & Saddleworth, a traditionally Conservative seat where the Liberals, not Labour, were the main rivals. The area’s history of nasty contests began with the 1995 election in the old Littleborough & Saddleworth, held at the peak of John Major’s unpopularity. The Tories’ vote collapsed by 21 points, to the benefit of the LibDems’ Chris Davies, who gained the seat with a 4.7% majority over Labour’s Phil Woolas. The by-election campaign was particularly nasty, with Woolas accusing Davis of being “high on tax and soft on drugs”. The inclusion of more working-class parts of the old Oldham Central & Royton were unfavourable to Davies, who lost to Woolas by a 6% margin in the 1997 election in the new seat. Woolas’ majority reached 8% in 2005, but the seat has never been particularly safe for Labour, unlike Oldham West and Royton. In 2010, Woolas, who experimented with some particularly nasty methods again, held on by a hair against LibDem opponent Elwyn Watkins. The Conservatives, which lack a good organization and local government base in the constituency, recovered from their 1995 drubbing only in 2010, when Kashif Ali managed to increase the Tory vote by 8.7% to win 26.4%. The BNP, which had won 11% here in 2001 in the aftermath of race riots, won 5.7% in 2010. There had been rumours that BNP leader Nick Griffin might stand in the by-election, but did not in the end. The BNP’s organization in the area collapsed after their 2001 boom, and the party has been going through internal feuds since their disappointing 2010 showing.
Aside from the unique circumstances of this election, and the unique fact that the LibDems were the ones with the power to move the writ for the by-election (instead of the incumbent party, as is usually the case); this by-election was all the more interesting because it is the first one since the formation of the ConDem coalition in May. Both parties stood candidates after all, but all eyes were on the LibDem vote. Their vote here is probably largely centre-right, being concentrated in the middle-class areas of the seat such as Saddleworth, of a type which might be amenable to voting Tory in other, more “traditional” constituencies. Yet, polls have been showing that the LibDems have suffered a lot from going into coalition with Cameron’s Tories and that they were leaking lots of vote from their left to Labour. The results of the by-election provide an interesting look at the LibDem’s vote:
Debbie Abrahams (Labour) 42.14% (+10.27%)
Elwyn Watkins (Liberal Democrat) 31.95% (+0.32%)
Kashif Ali (Conservative) 12.83% (-13.62%)
Paul Nuttall (UKIP) 5.81% (+1.95%)
Derek Adams (BNP) 4.47% (-1.25%)
Peter Allen (Green) 1.52%
The Flying Brick (Monster Raving Loony Party) 0.42%
Stephen Morris (English Democrats) 0.41%
Loz Kaye (Pirate Party) 0.27%
David Bishop (Bus-Pass Elvis Party) 0.19%
Labour holds the seat with a majority of 10.2%, which means a majority and a popular vote share higher than 2005 and 1997 (the Labour majority in 2005 was actually higher than that of 1997, which is not all that mind-boggling given that Labour was on the offensive against a non-Tory incumbent in 1997). Its vote share is up 10.3%, a figure similar to its vote increase back in the 1995 by-election. Yet, the LibDem vote is also marginally up. The headline figures thus hide something. The Liberal Democrats picked up tactical votes from the Tories who voted LibDem to throw Labour out. This resulted in the Conservative vote collapsing to an all-time low, lower than even 1997. The Liberal Democrats picking up votes from their right was at the same neutralized by what was probably a pretty important leak of votes from its left to Labour. Labour’s vote, after all, went up quite dramatically and it can really only be at the expense of the LibDems. Turnout was 48%, which is good for a winter by-election, and this definitely helped Labour. The LibDems moving the writ for an election in early January was deliberate to minimize Labour turnout, but a Labour GOTV campaign proved quite effective. Paul Nuttall, a UKIP MEP, won a good result – polling ahead of the BNP here of all places, and likely picked up a few Tory votes. The BNP might have suffered from its internal divisions, a higher than expected turnout or its inexistent local organization in Oldham.
Extrapolating the world from a by-election is always a dreadfully bad idea, but doing so from the first by-election in a Parliament is even worse. Yet, the results of the by-election here are unambiguously favourable to Labour. On balance, they are unfavourable to the Liberal Democrats given that they benefited from Tory tactical voting which compensated for a big leakage to Labour. In other constituencies, where the LibDems don’t have a strong base and are on the long-shot offensive from third or distant second, they will not benefit from such tactical voting. In fact, they’ll suffer from it. The image is bleak for the Tories, but I wouldn’t take too much out from this by-election. A by-election in a seat where contests are usually Labour vs. Conservative with the LibDems a non-threatening third would perhaps be more interesting and more informative.
The delayed poll in the UK constituency of Thirsk and Malton was held on May 27, instead of May 6 because of the death before the election of a UKIP – only the eight candidate to die during a campaign since 1918 (though it already happened in 2005…). Thirsk and Malton is a large rural seat in the south Yorkshire covering the Ryedale and the Vale of York (which are also the name of the two old seats which made up the new Thirsk and Malton). This agricultural seat, relatively well-off for a rural area, is, like most of south Yorkshire, very very strongly Tory and the area has returned Tory MPs vitam aeternam (though a Liberal won a 1986 by-election in Ryedale, but lost in 1987), and according to Wikipedia, since 1885 at least (it’s another of those few areas which have voted Tory since the Victorian era). Here are the results:
Anne McIntosh (Con) 52.87% (+1%)
Howard Keal (LDem) 23.30% (+4.5%)
Jonathan Roberts (Labour) 13.55% (-9.8%)
Toby Horton (UKIP) 6.56% (+3.5%)
John Clark (Liberal) 3.72%
Turnout was 50.3%
I know it’s more than tempting to twist this as a by-election and early test for the very mediatized Tory-LibDem coalition government, but it isn’t a by-election, and an election held so soon after the regular election is still, usually, in a government’s honeymoon period and at a time when the recently thrown-out government is divided, absent and embroiled in a leadership contest, reducing their media visibility as a viable alternative for those partisans opposed to the government. It isn’t different here, and it would extremely stupid to try to pick out stuff from these results.
If the LibDems are to suffer loses from their association with the Tories, it isn’t in seats like this, but rather in Labour-LDem marginals or seats where the LibDem electorate is young, socially liberal and by tradition and ideology quite anti-Tory. The LibDem voters here are certainly not of that type. The bottom line is that this is not the type nor place to test LibDem support post-coalition, though the decent Liberal Party (which are nowadays to the left of the LibDems) showing could be a result of that (and the UKIP showing could be either sympathy votes, anti-coalition Tories or people voting UKIP because it won’t impact the final result much).