Tony Blair - the unelected peace envoy to the Middle East. Photograph: Getty Images.
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As we mourn Benn, the rise of unelected power should shame us

In the Ukraine, the Middle East and the eurozone, authority increasingly lies with elites, rather than elected representatives.

"Having served for nearly half a century in the House of Commons, I now want more time to devote to politics and more freedom to do so."

While it’s 15 years since he said that, Tony Benn’s words today seem more apposite than ever, albeit in a way he didn’t intend. For democracy seems to be in a very poor state of repair just now, and power seems to lie increasingly not with our elected representatives, but with the elites and the establishment.

The world argues over the rights and wrongs of the Ukraine. The west howls because a referendum is going to be held asking the people of Crimea what they want, ostensibly objecting because it is "unconstitutional" (one suspects what they really mean is "we will lose"). Meanwhile, 20,000 Russian soldiers waltz into the region, largely because they know no one will stop them. And today two politicians, neither of whom come from the Ukraine, will meet in London to try and thrash out a solution to the problem that will set the future for its people. For what it’s worth, neither of those politicians are elected by the nations they hail from either.

The worst conflict in the world currently is the civil war in Syria. The democracies of the world watch helplessly as the two unelected sides battle it out, the innocent population bearing the brunt of, what I heard described last week as a de facto war between two completely different countries – Iran (currently 158th of the 167 countries listed on the EIUs Democracy Index) and Saudi Arabia (our ally, currently lying 163rd on that list, five places lower than Iran and a remarkable 21 places lower than, er, China).

And how quick we are to forego democracy ourselves when it suits the establishment to do so. I’ve railed before about the effective coups in Italy and Greece in the euro crisis, where the ballot box was quickly dumped in favour of doing what the political establishment decided amongst themselves was "the right thing". Only yesterday did we see our own Prime Minister discussing how best to solve the problems of the Middle East with the region’s – needless to say unelected – "Peace Envoy". How happy the people who live there must be that the great and the good from the UK, including the author of the doctrine of the international community, are amongst them to solve their problems. It’s like we’ve gone back to the 1950s.

It seems more than ever that the establishment are determined to decide what’s best for everyone, rather than letting the people decide for themselves. But then again, as another politician of whom Tony Benn approved once wrote, “if voting changed anything, they’d abolish it”.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.