The rise of nationalist politics in Barnsley

The Barnsley by-election was a disaster for the LibDems, but a big success for UKIP and the BNP.

On Monday David Miliband warned about the growing subterranean strength of a new politics based on flag, soil, and mono-culturalism. In a poll commissioned by Searchlight 47 per cent of those surveyed wanted a politics based on varying degrees of anti-immigrant, anti-European, and anti-multiculturalist politics. In Barnsley the votes for the BNP and UKIP showed that politics has roots.

Of course Labour held the seat. Unlike the 1980s when by-election candidates were often eccentric, reflecting a left-lurching party base, the new MP for Barnsley, Dan Jarvis is a former Parachute Regiment officer with service in the Balkans and Afghanistan. Unite and Unison tried to push their candidates into Barnsley but in contrast to the 1980s, the unions have less and less say, let alone control of constituency parties. Labour under Ed Miliband's steady leadership remains a centrist ready-for-future-government party.

10 months ago the Lib Dems came second to Labour. Now they got fewer votes than the BNP. There is a South Yorkshire element to this. Nick Clegg is now known locally as the "Sheffield Fraudmaster" after the decision of his Lib Dem colleague, Vince Cable, to axe a £80 million loan to the Sheffield Forgemasters firm. One of the top DBIS officials told me last night that the loan had been fully approved by civil servants and was not political. It would be repaid with interest and would help the firm make the components for the next generation of power plants in Britain.

The decision to axe it, on the other hand, was wholly political and a disaster for Clegg who has paid a hard price. In Sheffield and neighbouring Barnsley the Sheffield Forgemasters row is associated with Clegg and the Lib Dems. Sheffield is still - just - under Lib Dem control. But in the May elections most South Yorkshire observers see a total Lib Dem wipe-out. The consequence is likely to lead to the Lib Dems being like Labour in 1981 - facing a split as a new Liberal Party emerges willing to take on the government on its illiberalism, its foreign policy blunders, and its harsh social policies. Nick Clegg's association with AV must also worry the Yes2AV camp as they look to the May plebiscite.

But the other political consequence from Barnsley is the 2,953 votes gathered by UKIP, who got more than the Conservatives, and the BNP who overtook the Lib Dems as well as a smaller nationalist party. The view that the BNP is on the point of disintegration may be true in terms of the party's internal organisation, Nick Griffin's incoherence, and financial costs following court tussles with the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. But in terms of voting popularity the BNP is still solidly there. So too is UKIP which is becoming as anti-Muslim as it is anti-Europe. Nigel Farage is a far more attractive TV personality than the sweating Nick Griffin. Tory MPs were told 2005-2010 that David Cameron would lead a Eurosceptic government. But in office Cameron has turned into a Euro-realist unable to offer a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, repatriate powers, or do more than deploy delaying tactics over prisoner voting rights. The universities are up in arms about visa bans on students as is business on being able to import key foreign workers. EU residents here are as entitled to UK benefits just as British citizens in Europe cannot be denied social rights in countries where they live and work.

All this is grist to the mill of nationalist, identity politics. David Cameron sought to placate this constituency with his speech attacking multiculturalism in Munich. But Nick Clegg said the opposite in Luton yesterday. Tory MPs would like more audible dog-whistles, an updated version of Powellism-lite. Otherwise the politics of Kipling's "One land, one law, one throne" will surface in new forms. Jonathan Reynolds, one of the smartest of the new Labour MPs has already noted that the Barnsley result signals the end of two-party politics. He is right.

Denis MacShane is the MP for Rotherham and a former Europe minister.

Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was a minister at Foreign and Commonwealth Office
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.