Guest Post: Newark by-election (United Kingdom) 2014
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.