Local elections: seven early thoughts on what they mean

UKIP won the day, but not because of Europe, a Tory MP may well defect and parliament will be hung after 2015.

Some early observations on the meaning of yesterday’s elections. (George has very helpfully summarised and analysed the results here.) 

UKIP won

Whatever the final break down of shares of the vote and swings, it is clearly Nigel Farage’s day. His party is dominating media coverage, effectively ramping up the idea that this is some kind of national insurgency and that a bomb has been detonated beneath the old party establishment. That makes for a day-long, free party political broadcast for UKIP – even the bits where MPs from other parties are attacking them.

UKIP will win next year’s European parliamentary elections

Tory MPs were gloomy about the June 2014 MEP poll even before today. One recently told me his party would "definitely lose", by which he meant come behind UKIP. I mentioned yesterday the prospect of a "don’t ask; don’t tell" attitude to UKIP voting in local Tory associations. There will definitely be some tacit licensing of UKIP votes next June because activists can’t bring themselves to sell Cameron’s "in, but after renegotiation" position on the doorstep. The message is: have your wicked way with UKIP on Europe but come back to us for a general election to stop a Labour government. That might backfire horribly because …

It isn’t about Europe

All of the detailed polling of UKIP supporters confirms this. Yes, they hate the EU, but that is because it is an emblem of many other things they hate more: bossy, distant, characterless, arrogant, metropolitan elites foisting immigrants on them and telling them they’re racists when they complain about it. Etc. To many UKIP-minded voters, David Cameron looks much too close to that model of politician to ever be trusted, even when the alternative is Ed Miliband. This hatred may well be deep enough and the sense of Lab-Con equivalence in turpitude may be strong enough that UKIP could sustain a surprising share of the vote even in a general election. (It will fall, of course, but maybe not as far as the Tories need it to go.) That prospect increases the chances that …

A Tory MP may well defect

This is UKIP’s best hope of getting an MP at Westminster. A few months ago – when the Tory mood was particularly grim a miserable Conservative moderniser told me it was practically certain someone on his benches would go UKIP before the general election and that it was just a question of who – and of whether it would be only one. Conservative spirits have lifted a bit since then but it isn’t at all hard to imagine an enterprising rightwinger with zero chances of promotion under Cameron, a passionate scorn for the man himself and a solidly loyal local following making the leap.

The Lib Dems have half-completed their journey to something

Seventh place in the South Shields by-election, on less than 2 per cent of the vote. Ouch. Elsewhere, the Lib Dems had a predictably grim night, although they have managed to defend some bastions and their vote has held together in areas where they also hold the Westminster seat. In other words, where they are dug in and can muster some force for a fight, they are still in the game – which will give some cause for encouragement in a general election. In two thirds of Lib Dem Westminster seats, the Tories are in second place. If a bunch of Conservative voters switch to UKIP and Labour people vote tactically, Clegg’s party could have a half decent number of "holds" on a dismal national share of the vote. (The irony is not wasted on Lib Dems that this means the first-past-the-post electoral system is now their friend, while AV would have substantially alleviated Cameron’s UKIP headache. )

But that doesn’t answer the question of what the Lib Dems are for. They plainly aren’t scooping up protest votes or disgruntled anti-Blair, pacifist leftists any more. They are the moderate, technocratic pro-austerity-but-more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger party. They can scrape through a general election on that platform but only just. And beyond that? The Lib Dems have heard a door slam shut behind them and can’t yet see one opening in front of them.

UKIP do small electoral favours for Labour but threaten them in more profound ways

A great big fault line opening up on the right flank of politics can do wonders for a vaguely unified leftish bloc. There are plainly gains to be made for Labour nicking Tory seats if right-wing voters break for UKIP. That should offer very little comfort to Ed Miliband. Farage’s party came a respectable second place in South Shields, suggesting that voters who have been culturally inoculated against backing the Tories for a generation have no such qualms about UKIP. There are seats across the north of England and Scotland that Labour has taken for granted, where the party machine has rusted, where there are no up to date voter lists and the activist base is tribal and complacent. (This is what Jim Murphy was talking about when he warned against "Lazy Labour" in a recent New Statesman interview.) It is this decay of the base in "safe" areas that has allowed the SNP to make gains in Scotland and let George Galloway into Bradford last year. Labour are very vulnerable to the anti-politics mood too.

This represents a direct intellectual challenge to Miliband. As I argued in my column this week, the Labour leader’s offer to his party is national renewal based on a recognition of seismic changes in the political landscape. Miliband is supposed to have sifted through the ideological wreckage of the financial crisis, anticipated the turn Britain is about to take and positioned himself in the right place to be the chief beneficiary. If that calculation didn’t include a sudden upswing in reactionary populism it ought to have done. I get the impression that, back in 2010, a UKIP surge wasn’t factored into Miliband’s "end of the neo-liberal paradigm" model, which means his political algorithm is in urgent need of adjustment.

Parliament will be hung after 2015

The Conservatives aren’t capable of reaching deep into places that were inaccessible to them in 2010. Labour don’t look like the natural recipients of a huge, uniform anti-incumbent swing. The competition is to be the biggest party in another hung parliament.

Nigel Farage addresses members of the public during a political meeting at the Armstrong Hall in South Shields. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser