On the political horizon: by-election mayhem

The races for new city mayoralties and directly elected police commissioners could mean choice Westm

Westminster loves a by-election. Opinion polls can tell us only what people say they might do, which isn't even a reliable guide to what they truly think, let alone what will happen when they are ultimately confronted with a ballot paper. A good by-election reveals the mood of the electorate - albeit in just one constituency. It also helps parties test campaigning strategies. Labour tacticians still wince at the memory of the ill-judged deployment of top-hatted stalkers to pursue the (not at all aristocratic) Conservative candidate in Crewe and Nantwich in 2008.

And, of course, the by-election is often, in the worn idiom of political journalism, "a crucial test" for party leaders. Are they showing momentum? Are they fending off attacks? Is their message getting through?

So it is hardly surprising that the prospect of a rash of constituency skirmishes over the next year or so is generating a lot of chatter in parliament. In May of this year there will be referendums in 11 British cities on the creation of an elected mayoral job. If the answer is "yes", mayors will be chosen in November. Also due in November are votes to install the first 40 directly elected local police commissioners. Some of these jobs might be fancied by sitting MPs, especially on the Labour side where life in impotent opposition is proving dispiriting.

Two names often cited as possible candidates for the Birmingham mayoralty are Liam Byrne, shadow work and pensions secretary and MP for the city's Hodge Hill constituency, and Gisela Stuart, MP for Edgbaston. Of the two, fans of politics as spectator sport would much prefer the latter for the simple and faintly dishonorable reason that the battle to fill Stuart's seat would be by far the more exciting. Edgbaston is a bellwether constituency. It was the result - a massive swing to Labour - whose declaration on election night in May 1997 revealed the scale of the landslide to come. If Edgbaston had gone Labour, anything was possible.

Likewise, Labour holding the seat in 2010 was a telling sign that Cameron had failed to fully decontaminate the Tory party. If his campaign had gone anything like according to plan he really ought to have won that seat. The fact that he didn't is sometimes attributed to the personal standing of the local MP, sometimes also to a well-fought grass roots campaign. In any case, it's a marginal now and one that the Tories would very much like to snatch away from Ed Miliband.

Rivalling Edgbaston for interest is the Hampshire seat of Eastleigh, currently occupied by Chris Huhne. The former Lib Dem Energy Secretary faces criminal charges on a driving offence. He is, of course, entitled to be presumed innocent. If, however, he is convicted he would have to quit as an MP. The seat has, in the past, been a straight Lib Dem/Tory contest. A by-election along those lines could be gruesome for coalition relations. Quite a few Lib Dem seats match that profile, including constituencies held by cabinet ministers. Vince Cable, Business Secretary (Twickenham) and Ed Davey, Huhne's replacement as Energy Secretary (Kingston and Surbiton) would both be watching with keen interest how the Tories would campaign in an Eastleigh contest.

All of this is, of course, still very much in the realm of idle speculation and hypothesis. But that doesn't mean it isn't exercising a lot of minds in Westminster.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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The biggest divide in politics is not left against right, but liberals against authoritarians

My week, including a Lib Dem membership rise, The Avalanches, and why I'm putting pressure on Theresa May over child refugees.

It is a boost for us that Nick Clegg has agreed to return to the front line and be our Brexit spokesperson. I hadn’t even had a chance at our meeting to make him the offer when he said: “Before we start, I’ve been thinking about this and want to take on the fight over Europe.”

With Labour apparently willing to give the Tories a free pass to take us out of Europe, the Liberal Democrats are the only UK-wide party that will go into the next election campaigning to maintain our membership of the EU. The stage is remarkably clear for us to remind Theresa May precisely what she would be risking if we abandon free trade, free movement, environmental protection, workers’ rights and cross-border security co-operation. More than a month on from the referendum, all we have heard from the Tories is that “Brexit means Brexit” – but they have given us no clue that they understand what that means.

 

Premature obituaries

Not long ago, the received wisdom was that all political parties were dying – but lately the supposed corpses have twitched into life. True, many who have joined Labour’s ranks are so hard left that they don’t see winning elections as a primary (or even a desirable) purpose of a party, and opening up Labour to those with a very different agenda could ultimately destroy it.

Our experience has been happier: 20,000 people joined the Liberal Democrat fightback in the wake of the 2015 general election result, and 17,000 more have joined since the referendum. We now have more members than at any time this century.

 

Breaking up is hard to do

Journalists have been asking repeatedly if I want to see the break-up of the Labour Party, with moderates defecting to the Liberal Democrats. I have been clear that I am not a home-wrecker and it is for Labour to determine its own future, just as I focus on advancing the Liberal Democrat cause. Yet I have also been clear that I am happy for my party to be a home for liberals of whatever hue. I enjoyed campaigning in the referendum with a variety of progressive figures, just as moderates from different parties shared platforms in 1975. It struck me that far more unites us than divides us.

That said, not all “moderate” Labour figures could be described as “liberal”, as John Reid demonstrated as Labour home secretary. The modern political divide is less left v right than authoritarian v liberal. Both left and right are looking increasingly authoritarian and outright nasty, with fewer voices prepared to stand up for liberal values.

 

What I did on my holidays

Time off has been virtually non-existent, but I am reading A Wilderness of Mirrors by Mark Meynell (about loss of trust in politics, the media and just about everything). I’m also obsessively listening to Wildflower by the Avalanches, their second album, 16 years after their first. It’s outstanding – almost 60 minutes of intelligently crafted dialogue, samples and epic production.

During the political maelstrom, I have been thinking back to the idyllic few days I spent over half-term on the Scottish island of Colonsay: swimming in the sea with the kids (very cold but strangely exhilarating ­after a decent jog), running and walking. An added bonus is that Colonsay is the smallest island in the world to have its own brewery. I can now heartily recommend it.

 

Preparing for the next fight

The odds are weirdly long on an early general election, but I refuse to be complacent – and not merely because the bookies were so wrong about Brexit. If we have learned one truth about Theresa May as Prime Minister so far, it is that she is utterly ruthless. After her savage cabinet sackings, this is, in effect, a new government. She has refused to go to the country, even though she lectured Gordon Brown on the need to gain the endorsement of the electorate when he replaced Tony Blair. Perhaps she doesn’t care much about legitimacy, but she cares about power.

You can be sure that she will be keeping half an eye on Labour’s leadership election. With Jeremy Corbyn potentially reconfirmed as leader in September against the wishes of three-quarters of his MPs, Mrs May might conclude that she will never have a better chance to increase her narrow majority. Throw in the possibility that the economy worsens next year as Brexit starts to bite, and I rule nothing out.

So, we are already selecting candidates. It is vital that they dig in early. As we are the only party prepared to make the positive case for Europe, such an election would present us with an amazing opportunity.

 

Sitting Priti

David Cameron pledged to take an unspecified number of unaccompanied children from camps across the Continent. I am putting pressure on Theresa May to turn that vague commitment into a proper plan. Having visited such camps, I have been fighting for Britain to give sanctuary to a minimum of 3,000 unaccompanied children, who are currently open to the worst kinds of exploitation. We have heard nothing but silence from the government, with underfunded councils reporting that they are not receiving the help they need from Whitehall.

Meanwhile, it remains government policy to send refugees to Turkey – whose increasingly authoritarian government has just suspended human rights protection.

As if all of this were not grim enough, we have a new Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, who has said that she thinks aid should be used largely to promote trade. As someone who wants our country to be respected around the world, I find this plain embarrassing. Actually, it’s worse. It’s shaming. As with Europe, so with the world: the ­Conservative government is hauling up the drawbridge just when we need more than ever to engage with people beyond our shores.

Tim Farron is the leader of the Liberal Democrats. To join the party, visit: libdems.org.uk/join

Tim Farron is leader of the Liberal Democrats.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue