A vote against politics

Election 2001: the anti-political vote should worry the political establishment as much as the historically low turnout.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

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Topics Politics

On 7 June 2001, more of the UK electorate stayed at home (40.8 percent) than voted for the government (24.2 percent) – the cause of much handwringing among politicians and commentators. But what do the votes that were actually cast for parties other than Labour and the Tories tell us about politics today? What kind of protest vote is there in the UK in 2001?

One of the big beneficiaries of the election were the Liberal Democrats. While their increased vote (from 16.8 percent in 1997 to 18.3 percent in 2001, or from 46 seats to 52) (1) doesn’t represent a massive breakthrough, it did a lot to bolster the party’s credibility – the best third-party showing since the Liberals won 59 seats in 1929.

The Lib Dems did well mainly in the key marginals where they went head-to-head with the Tories – not only holding on to their narrow 1997 gains like Torbay, but also snatching dyed-in-the-wool Tory seats like Guildford. They gained Chesterfield from Labour, previously held by Tony Benn, and held on to Kingston with a 15.9 percent swing.

Liberal Democrat gains (largest swing first) (2)

Liberal Democrat seats that were Tory targets

No doubt the Lib Dems benefited from tactical anti-Tory voting in some constituencies – but organised attempts to exploit anti-Toryism weren’t always successful. Oliver Letwin, for example, kept his seat in Dorset West, despite the much-publicised internet vote-swapping organised by singer Billy Bragg.

What about the smaller parties? The nationalist parties in Wales and Scotland stood still (Plaid Cymru) or slipped back slightly (the Scottish National Party). The UK Independence Party, the successor to James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party, received only 1.5 percent of the vote.

The Greens made some progress. They didn’t win any seats but they retained 10 deposits (that is, they received at least five percent of the vote in 10 constituencies), something they had never managed before in a general election. They won 9.4 percent of the vote in Brighton Pavillion and beat the Liberal Democrats to third place in Bradford West, winning an average of 2.85 percent of the vote in the constituencies they stood in (3). But this pales into insignificance compared to the 15 percent of the vote they won in the 1989 European elections.

The Socialist Alliance got a lot of media attention, with the help of celebrity supporters like Ricky Tomlinson and Ken Loach – but still only managed an average of 1.8 percent of the vote where it stood (4). And in the two seats where it had some success local factors played an important part – so in St Helens South it benefited from a vote against the unpopular Labour candidate, Tory defector Shaun Woodward, while in Coventry North East its candidate was the one-time MP for the area, Dave Nellist.

The Scottish Socialist Party did better, standing in all the Scottish seats but only achieving real success in its Glasgow stronghold. In 1997, it stood in 18 seats and lost deposits in all but one. This time, it stood in 72 seats and retained 10 deposits (5), receiving on average 3.3% of the vote where it stood. But Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party failed to get anywhere, receiving only 1.4 percent of the vote in the 114 constituencies where it stood (6).

The British National Party (BNP) also claims to have had its best results ever (7) – achieving an average of 3.9 percent of the vote in the 33 seats it contested. But this figure is skewed by its three impressive results in Oldham West and Royton (16.4 percent), Burnley (11.25 percent) and Oldham East and Saddleworth (11.21 percent). Its other stronghold was the East End of London, where it retained two deposits and came close to retaining two others.

This was the vote of a disenfranchised white working class – voting against the political establishment rather than giving any kind of positive endorsement to neo-fascism. Most of those who voted BNP had little or no idea of what its policies were. When asked on TV news why her son had broken with his family’s support for Labour and had voted BNP, an Oldham constituent said simply, ‘I blame the Labour Party’.

The outstanding result of the night was won by somebody who is not even a member of a political party. Dr Richard Taylor won by a landslide in the Wyre Forest constituency, winning nearly three times as many votes as the sitting Labour MP, junior minister David Lock. He stood on a simple platform to defend acute services at Kidderminster Hospital on behalf of a local group, Health Concern. Taylor’s success mirrored that of Martin Bell in Tatton in 1997, even though he didn’t have anywhere near the same level of support from opposition parties and the media that Bell had (although the Liberal Democrats decided not to run against him) (8).

So what’s going on? There clearly hasn’t been a massive shift from supporting the main parties to supporting a new alternative – but the support for the smaller parties does tell us something about today’s anti-political sentiment.

Take the Liberal Democrats – their success cannot be explained by their policies, many of which were hardly distinguishable from Labour’s (they even played down their two big issues, proportional representation and closer ties with Europe). Rather, the Lib Dems won a share of the anti-political vote, by presenting themselves as honest blokes not interested in stunts or spin. If sleaze was the big issue in the 1997 election, spin was the big issue in 2001 – and the Lib Dems benefited from being anti-spin, which in many cases has become another way of saying anti-politics.

The Lib Dems have sought to distance themselves from traditional, Western politics. As their Scottish leader Jim Wallace put it in 1998, ‘“ya-boo”-style politics are dead. Parties will have to cooperate with each other on matters upon which they are agreed while continuing to conduct constructive argument on matters on which they disagree’ (9). And leader Charles Kennedy said, ‘I jump on injustice, not bandwagons’, creating an image of a party above the nasty business of political spin.

The victory for Dr Richard Taylor in Wyre Forest is another example of the anti-political vote. His concerns were extremely narrow, focusing on one hospital in one small part of the country, and reflected a lack of confidence in the mainstream parties’ ability to do anything about it. The end result is a form of political engagement with the lowest of ambitions and horizons.

Elections are usually seen as an opportunity to endorse a particular political programme – but the general election 2001 was different. Disaffection from the political process was apparent not only in the abstentions, but also in some of the protest votes cast. The protest vote was not for any clear ‘alternative’ politics of the left or right, but reflected a broader rejection of politics itself.

(1) Constituency results on BBC Vote 2001

(2) Results taken from the Independent, 9 June 2001

(3) See the Green Party website

(4) A tiny number of votes yielded absolute power Independent, 9 June 2001

(5) See the SSP website

(6) A tiny number of votes yielded absolute power Independent, 9 June 2001

(7) See the election analysis on the BNP website

(8) BBC Vote 2001, 8 June 2001

(9) Jim Wallace speech notes, Lib Dem conference website

For full details of election results, see House of Commons research paper 01/54 – Election results, June 7 2001.

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Topics Politics

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