Monday, 6 May 2013

The Curious Elections of May 2013

After a strange set of local elections on Thursday, which, to quote the song, have raised more "questions and answers", how does the British political landscape look this weekend?

Part of strategic analysis is about not just asking what happened and why it happened but what might have happened and why it did not. Mixed with that idea is the basic political concept which drives how parties can and should view elections - they are seldom as good as you hope and rarely as bad as you fear.

Some of the more outlandish claims for Conservative losses and UKIP gains turned out to belong in the marshy swamps of expectation management but today we know much more about UKIP and its potential impact on the political configuration of England than we did last Thursday morning.

As has been mentioned by the more astute observers on and elsewhere, the strength of UKIP has been most evident in the east of England covering Norfolk, Lincolnshire and similar. We can make two observations about these areas - first, they obtain areas of significant poverty and have attracted numbers of immigrants probably because of their proximity to significant ports of entry from Eastern Europe and second, they are areas from which both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have been systematically eroded in the past two decades.

In 1993, when the Conservatives lost control of Lincolnshire County Council, the Conservatives won just 32 seats, Labour 25 seats and the Liberal Democrats 15 seats. This was at a time when county councils included larger towns. Successive re-organisations turned these larger (and often non-Tory) towns into Unitary Authorities but not in Lincolnshire. However, through the long Labour years, the Conservatives strengthened their position as year after year of General Election and anti-Government voting took their toll. In 2009, the Conservatives won 60 seats, the Liberal Democrats 8, Labour four and Independents four.

The attrition of local political organisations through the Labour years left the Conservatives dominant throughout local politics apart from small areas such as Boston where Independents survived. As local social and cultural attitudes have hardened, these Independent groups have filled the Opposition void left by the absence of Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

On Thursday, the Conservatives crashed to 36 seats, UKIP won 16, Labour gained eight to 12, the Lincolnshire Independents won 10 and the Liberal Democrats won three. While Labour did well and probably will benefit in 2015, it was UKIP and the Independents which did the real damage.

Yet in other areas where UKIP were or might have been expecting to make an impact, it didn't happen. In Cornwall, for example, a hotbed of anti-EU feeling, UKIP took only three seats and were trounced in places like Newlyn. In Surrey, despite winning three seats, UKIP achieved a host of second places but little else to show. In Warlingham, for example, the seat of Council leader David Hodge, his majority of 901 in 2009 was slashed to 371 on Thursday. He polled more than 500 fewer votes than in 2009 but still won.

It seems then that the affluent areas or those areas with entrenched political rivalries are less susceptible to the anti-politics blandishments of UKIP. There were instances where two competing parties allowed UKIP through the middle but generally the UKIP impact in the affluent areas was muted. In addition, the evidence shows that UKIP did nothing against established non-political candidates. It was a good election for Independents showing perhaps that UKIP's appeal as an anti-politics party works best when there's no other competition for that role.

So it seems UKIP's areas of strengths (and there are parallels here with the BNP) are poorer areas and especially those areas with a perceived tension involving recently-arrived immigrants. We know that for UKIP voters immigration is a far greater concern than it is for supporters of other parties.

Where then do Thursday's results leave our understanding of what might happen at the next General Election? The Conservatives can, I think, be cautiously optimistic. Yes, there were some big losses though losing seats to UKIP and to Independent candidates (who were also more adept at seeing off any UKIP challenge) won't worry the party as much as the inability to make more than token headway against entrenched Labour and Liberal Democrat candidates. In parts of the south and west, it seems the Conservatives went backwards in some of the seats they need to win to get a majority in the next Commons. The Conservatives need to remind themselves that the main enemy is and always will be Labour and that spending time and effort battling Nigel Farage is not going to provide a huge return.

For Labour, the results in the northern and north midland areas were good. Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire were regained and a good number of seats won but seeing off the Liberal Democrats in Durham isn't what is going to win Ed Milliband the keys to Downing Street. In Labour's defence, piling up votes in Surrey isn't going to win the election either. Milliband knows he has to win 70+ seats in 2015 to win a majority - the threat from UKIP isn't to Labour seats per se but to Labout's ability to capture the key Conservative marginals. That said, Nigel Farage isn't going to lead the next Government and Labour need to win over those who may have voted UKIP on Thursday but will be looking at options for Government in two years time.

There are aspects of traditional Labour policy (scepticism on Europe, doubts on immigration and social conservatism) which could play very well in UKIP areas. Milliband's move away from the tenets of Blairism has been widely derided in some quarters but is probably quite smart politics as long as he can avoid the elephant trap of looking likje a stooge for the Trade Unions.

The Liberal Democrats took a beating on Thursday but not, oddly enough, where it matters in their Parliamentary areas where the results were generally good. The post-election Rallings & Thrasher numbers shows the party on 50 seats which would be an excellent result. Indeed, there were some marginal seats where the party also did well but there are too many regions where the party has been wiped out and these will take time to rebuild.

As for UKIP, I remain convinced their long-term prospects are poor but they have opened up a new front or series of fronts in the political battleground. Whether that can translate into significant parliamentary success in 2015 is debatable but UKIP did top the poll in five constituencies on Thursday so winning seats and especially given a favourable by-election remains a tantalising prospect for Nigel Farage but 1-5 seats looks the limit at a future General Election.

Two other points from Thursday'e elections are worth mentioning - first, turnout was very low and that accentuates swings. In 1998 and 1999, the Conservatives did very well in the local contests but it made no difference at all in 2001. Voters opposed to the Government are always more motivated to go out and vote than those mildly disaffected or supportive. Soe may argue that if Thursday is the best UKIP can do, the Tories have little to be worried about. It might be worth mentioning, however, that UKIP now has the opportunity and the funding to build up local organisations and do the kind of ground camapigning that might have delivered Eastleigh had it not been for the superior Liberal Democrat local machine.

The other point is that UKIP voters have, to this observer, a strong and coherent sense of being anti-contemporary by which I mean they often have social and cultural attitudes which many commentators had thought largely gone. They want a political class untainted by scandal and sleaze, one which keeps its word and listens to them. They might very well have admired Margaret Thatcher as a "conviction" politician though to be fair she rarely listened.

Across a range of subjects from MMR jabs to HS2, I sense in UKIP supporters a deep resistance to change, not a social conservatism but a cultural conservatism. I suspect UKIP aren't that opposed to the state funding things like bus passes for pensioners or free tv licences for the over-75s but there is an abiding sense of injustice which is directed at those perceived to be abusing the State and welfare.

This cultural conservatism is nebulous to the point of incoherence at times but it's NOT a small state approach. UKIP loves Government expenditure - they simply hate where it's being spent now. Those looking for a small state low tax party won't find it with Old Alleynian Mr Nigel Farage. What Farage has successfully done is to harnass this cultural conservatism unto himself - as he is demonstrably outside the Westminster bubble, he can afford to excoriate those inside it. The problem with that is and will be when and if UKIP achieves any kind of office - its record in the European Parliament suggests some of its members are as attracted to the blandishments of the trough as those of other parties.

The issue of the disconnection between those with power and those who vote is a serious question and this creeping authoritarianism or detachement of a political elite from the rest of society is a huge issue which all parties need to confront. We can't get into a position where the only way to achieve political high office is to spend your entire life as a member of the political class and hope for the best. Money and patronage should not buy political authority - in democracies, however, it does and always has.

1 comment:

jOHN nEWELL said...

the solution:

Procedure By Which conservatives Could Control Parliament

If UKIP  is  Lucky,  UKIP could  get,   perhaps,  get   ten to thirty   seats
in  Parliament.  Do  not   forget,   the  public  still regards  UKIP  as   a
one  issue  party.  To gain  control of  Parliament  UKIP  and  (and frie-
nds) should  form a  new  conservative  party  with  a  platform that is 
close to that of the existing Conservative party, omitting, of course, 
policies that are objectionable to conservatives. The purpose would
be to make a bed that would be easy for conservatives to slide into,
including  the eighty  percent  of  the Conservatives who left Conser-
vative  associations. UKIP and the  conservatives  should   then  form
 a  political  association  in  each  parliamentary  district.   UKIP   could
merge with the new party, thus getting rid of the one issue problem. 
Every one who would have worked  to  form  the new,  conservative,
 party   should   be   prevented   from    joining    the    new   party    for
a  period   of time  to  prevent  the  impression  that  UKIP  controls  it.
The two or three conservative parties should hold a primary election
to determine who runs as the Parliamentary candidate, with the losers
to help the winner. The cost of forming new associations can be raised
by local contributors. It is suggested that the  new   conservative   asso-
ciations and the political party be controlled by the lowest level of con-
servatives, such as teachers, small businessmen, solicitors, professionals
etc. If the  above   procedure   can  not  be  completed  in  time  to   get 
candidates   elected   to    Parliament,  the  new  party  must  wait  until
after the  election  and  hold  a  petition  demanding  that  the  elected
MP  resign. Note: an MP  represents   every  person  in  his  district,  not
just members and   supporters of his party. When the petition reaches
fifty percent of those who voted in the prior election, the conservatives
will be morally justified in demanding their MP"s resignation. Then the
new party could run their  candidates  in  the  following by elections. 
To select a candidate, a local  association should  advertise  for applicants
or the position of candidate for  Parliament, then  select   the   best  app-
licant  by using rigorous tests, including, most importantly,  psychological 
evaluation. psychological evaluation is an absolute necessity as the psych-
ological evaluation is the only way to tell who is honest and who is a con-
artist; members of the public  cannot.  Testing  could  be  required  of the 
association  officers,  committee  members and delegates, etc.

The platform, selected by new party associations,  should be some what
 vague in order to facilitate integration  the platforms of the  new  assoc-
iations into one platform. It is suggested that self forming cliques of those
who are   honest  and   trust  worthy  be formed;  then form   self  forming
cliques of those who have   political skills  and  capabilities,  within  the
first described clique.

The corruption in Ukip is a cause for concern. Information about the corr-
uption may bee seen on the following websites:

John Newell