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Why voters will make a monkey out of Cameron’s midterm elections

A good point is often wasted in a lost argument. It will soon be the first anniversary of Britain’s decision to reject the Alternative Vote (AV) system for deciding parliamentary elections. Commemorative candles will stay unlit. Even the Liberal Democrats, for whom defeat in that referendum was a political catastrophe, know they must move on. Electoral reform lies in an untended grave.

But buried with it is a crucial observation: British elections are organised as if everyone belongs in one of two camps – Blue and Red – when the evidence shows that they don’t.

To prove it, on 29 March six out of ten voters in West Bradford chose a candidate from none of the mainstream parties. George Galloway’s victory was peculiar to the area. Leftist populism blended with young Muslim disaffection does not extrapolate into a national campaign. But that is the point. It is the feebleness of nationwide messages pumped out of central party machines that enabled a maverick charmer with a knack for animating local passions to snatch the seat from Labour.

Party affiliation has been in decline since the 1950s; so has voter turnout. Distaste for the usual parliamentary brands soured into disgust during the MPs’ expenses scandal. Coalition, heralded as a new kind of politics, has turned out for most people to be indistinguishable from the old variety. When the three main party leaders’ popularity ratings are combined, they make the lowest aggregate score since records began. It is fertile terrain for NOTA candidates – None of the Above.

Ukip, you lose

Galloway’s Respect party might have peaked in Bradford but it would be unwise to bet against another intrusion at the Westminster clubhouse before too long. Tory strategists are constantly wary of Ukip. In the run-up to last December’s by-election in Feltham, Conservative activists were reporting mass defections to the monomaniacal anti-Brussels party. The exodus was halted by David Cameron’s veto of the European fiscal union treaty a week before polling day.

But the demands of sensible diplomacy and partnership with the Lib Dems make Cameron bound to do something that leaves Europhobes feeling betrayed. Ukip can expect a strong showing in elections to the European Parliament in 2014. In the last such ballot, the party won the second-highest national vote share. (On the same night, Britain acquired two MEPs from the BNP.

Those are just the English preoccupations. The party spectrum has long been more diverse in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, something that most of Westminster and the London-based media generally see as exotic fringe pluralism. Only the prospect of a referendum on Scottish independence – turning “None of the Above” into “Not Even the Same Country” – has focused English political minds.

Cameron does not want to go down in history as the Prime Minister who oversaw the dissolution of the United Kingdom but he is being advised that the best service he can render the campaign to preserve the Union is to absent himself from it. The Lib Dems, meanwhile, are tarnished by association with the Tories. That leaves Labour to bear the burden of an anti-nationalist campaign, but the party’s Scottish operation is short on talent and its campaign machinery is rusted through. Senior Labour figures are now looking at the failure to generate enthusiasm on the ground in Bradford and worrying that the same will happen on a much larger scale in Scotland.

Even in the London mayoral election, a contest in which the old Labour-Tory duopoly appears to hold, party affiliation is not the determining factor. Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson stand for their own, eponymous brands. If Johnson wins, it will be because his genial “Boris” persona overcomes anti-Tory prejudice in the liberal-lefty metropolis and because swaths of Labour-supporting Londoners – one in three, according to one poll – refuse to back the party’s official candidate.

Later this year, a number of English cities will elect mayors for the first time (precisely which ones has yet to be settled). On the same day – 15 November – 41 regional police commissioners will be installed by popular vote. Although this new wave of devolution is a Tory manifesto commitment, there is a feeling among many MPs and some Downing Street officials that the consequences of holding a “Super Thursday” of midterm ballots, inviting a surge of protest votes, were not thought through.

They, robot

The potential for upset is vast. In May 2002, H’Angus the Monkey, mascot of Hartlepool United FC, was elected as that town’s mayor. In June 2009, Doncaster picked a mayor from the English Democrats, a right-wing reactionary faction in the Ukip mould. The rise of social media and web-savvy activism in recent years raise the prospect of a Westminster giant being felled by viral online mischief.

The challenge for the main parties will be crafting a message that resonates at a local level, while sticking to anodyne soundbites that have been tailored for national media consumption. Voters want candidates to speak like human beings but the official playbook of Westminster politics, with its emphasis on line-toeing discipline, turns decent people into robots.

Austerity adds another constraint, limiting the three main parties to anaemic offers of penny-pinching change. Labour, Tory and Lib Dem candidates operate in recognition that public funds are scarce; local insurgents can pretend they aren’t. Galloway’s campaign pledges were a menu of unrealisable fantasies.

Snatching by-election seats that way used to be a Lib Dem speciality. In Bradford, the party’s candidate lost her deposit. The collapse in support for the third party since it joined the coalition is a parable of politics. Few leaders in history can have captured the public imagination and swapped it for scorn as efficiently as Nick Clegg did in making the transition from righteous opposition to practical government.

That spectacular fall offers no comfort to Ed Miliband and David Cameron. It is, after all, their parties that represent the status quo of power, generations old, that British voters seem increasingly desperate to reject.

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

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide