Brent out of shape
The fallout from the Brent East by-election shows that it isn't only the government that is in crisis, but politics itself.
Before it took place on 18 September 2003, the by-election for a new member of parliament in Brent East, north-west London, was looked upon as a non-event. It was largely commented on for its eccentric candidates – the election ‘with all the funny people’, as one report described it, referring to the 13 non-mainstream candidates ranging from religious types to Monster Raving Loonies.
But following the result, where the Liberal Democrats won the seat from Labour with a majority of over 1,100, Brent East has been called a ‘political earthquake’, ‘the biggest hammer blow of Tony Blair’s political career’, which the Labour government will ‘struggle’ to recover from (1). ‘From Baghdad to Brent’, said one newspaper headline, linking Blair’s problems in Iraq with his defeat in Brent East as a sign of ‘catastrophe ahead’ (2).
How did Brent East go from being ‘funny’ to a ‘political earthquake’? The storm over Brent East cannot be explained by Labour’s loss alone. Rather, there appear to have been two Brent East realities: the election itself, in which the Lib Dems won a safe Labour seat, certainly causing the government some discomfort; and the response to Brent East, which has been driven by far more subjective, and destructive, factors.
On the election itself, one thing seems clear: the Lib Dems did not win on the basis of their own merits or strengths. Instead, Lib Dem candidate Sarah Teather benefited from an anti-political vote, from voters’ cynicism with the government and distaste for the Tories. On a turnout of 36 per cent, Teather won 8,158 votes compared with Labour candidate Robert Evans’ 7,040 votes, representing a swing of 28 per cent for the Lib Dems, and minus 29 per cent for Labour. Significantly, it was the first time Labour had lost a House of Commons seat in a by-election for 15 years.
Yet for all the talk of the rise of the Lib Dems – complete with a two-page spread in the Sun on what life would be like under a Lib Dem government – the Brent East vote was less a positive endorsement of the Lib Dems’ political programme (whatever that might be) than a vote against the political mainstream. The one thing that local charity worker Sarah Teather had going for her, in the absence of political passion or beliefs, was that she was neither Labour nor Tory. As one Brent East voter put it, ‘She is not like the rest of them; you cannot trust the others’.
If the Brent East vote was not a positive vote for Ms Teather, neither was it a positive vote against New Labour, in the vein of the traditional protest vote. Much has been made of Brent East’s Muslim community using the by-election as a means of giving Blair a bloody nose for his war in Iraq, and no doubt there is some truth to that. Yet as Teather herself says, the general sentiment in Brent East was one of ‘feeling let down and cheated’ by politicians, and a general ‘lack of trust’ in our leaders (3). The Lib Dems – the least traditionally political party – were the beneficiaries of a jaded mood of anti-politics, rather than of a political protest against the government.
The Lib Dems were not the driving force behind the events in Brent East, much less behind any ‘political earthquake’ that may or may not be rocking Britain. Instead, they have become something of a receptacle for anti-political sentiment, the non-party party in to which voters feel they can dump their grievances with politics and politicians. Now, Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy hopes he can build on this sentiment, by tapping into the public’s cynicism over Blair and his war in Iraq – what some have referred to as the ‘Brent Bounce’.
So the one policy-of-sorts to have emerged from this week’s Lib Dem conference in Brighton is that the public’s ‘disillusionment’ with politicians offers, in Kennedy’s words, the best chance to ‘break the political mould since the Thatcher years’ (4). Lib Dem MEP Nick Clegg has called on his party to make use of the ‘plague on both their houses’ sentiment that is apparently sweeping Middle England, and to ‘strike a chord’ with disillusioned voters (5). Kennedy and co will soon discover that you cannot build a political opposition or a political programme on the kind of anti-political sentiment that got them into Brent East by default.
Away from the reality of the Brent East by-election, there has been the overblown reaction to it – where both Labour and the Tories have seen in the Brent East results their own isolation and uncertainty. This subjective response to Brent East was decisive in transforming it from a political problem for Labour and the Tories, into a ‘political earthquake’ for Britain.
The by-election result was no doubt a blow for the government. Brent East has for years been, in the words of one commentator, ‘a rock-solid safe Labour seat’. In the 2001 general election, Labour won 63.2 per cent of the vote in Brent East, compared with the Lib Dems’ 10.6 per cent. Two years later, Labour’s vote has plummeted to 33.8 per cent while the Lib Dems’ rose to 39.1 per cent. No government wants that kind of local defeat, particularly in the midst of the Hutton and Iraq controversies.
Yet Labour leaders have overreacted massively to their Brent East blow. Home secretary David Blunkett claims that the time has come to ‘change or die’ (6). Former Labour minister Frank Field says the Labour government is in ‘deep trouble’ after Brent East, and could potentially lose the 2005 general election to a newly emerging Tory Party – despite Labour’s majority of 164 in parliament, one of the largest in modern history, and the Tories’ continuing decline into political oblivion (7).
For all New Labour’s fretting, in fact losing mid-term by-elections, historically speaking, is a fairly standard experience for ruling parties. Indeed, the fact that Brent East was Labour’s first by-election loss in 15 years, despite their having been in power for seven years, indicates the sea change that has taken place in British politics, where New Labour dominates the political landscape. That their loss of a by-election by 1,100 votes has been at the forefront of public debate for the past week, also shows how shocking it has become for Labour to lose ground. Yet the uncertain Labour government has talked of defeat and downfall in response to its one and only by-election defeat to date.
What Labour, and the other parties, sense most in Brent East is their own isolation from the masses. With just 36 per cent turning out to vote, the Brent East by-election continues the trend of falling levels of political engagement. In response, Blunkett and others call for new efforts to ‘connect…’ – a largely abstract idea that only highlights the parties’ uncertainty over how to connect, and their dearth of ideas with which to make a connection. Ironically, on this front, the government and opposition parties actually underestimate the extent to which they are dislocated from the people. Brent East confirms that even many of those who do vote today, the 36 per cent in this instance, increasingly do so from a disengaged, cynical-about-politics standpoint.
Then there has been the Tories’ irrational response – which has confirmed them as the most degraded and self-destructive force in British politics. The Tories have never done particularly well in Brent East. In last week’s by-election they won 16.2 per cent of the vote, down from the 18.2 per cent that they won in the general election of 2001. This means that where they were a poor second to Labour in 2001, this time around they came a poor third, behind the Lib Dem winners and the Labour runners-up. Knocked from second position into third – for the Tories, this is the ultimate nightmare, which they desperately hope will not repeat itself within national politics.
For a political party on the slide, searching for an identity and an audience, Brent East was yet another insult. Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith reacted to the Brent East result by lashing out against the Lib Dems, accusing them of ‘deceit’. According to Duncan Smith, Charles Kennedy secretly has a left-wing agenda, which he cynically kept hidden from the voters of Brent East.
This is now the Tories stock attack on their opponents – to accuse them of the sin of being political. During the Hutton controversy, Duncan Smith accused Labour of being a government that believes in ‘total politics’; now he lambasts the Lib Dems for apparently having some politics up their sleeves. After Brent East, some Tories also had a go at London types for voting for ‘leftish’ parties like the Lib Dems. Like an eternally losing football team, the Tories blame everyone but themselves for their own demise.
The Tories increasingly respond to their own political isolation by attacking politics itself. Believing in politics, having an agenda, devising a programme – according to Duncan Smith and his Tory cohorts, these are the worst things political parties can do. Just today, Duncan Smith issued a statement on the Hutton Inquiry, arguing that, ‘The treatment of Dr Kelly [was] abysmal and it shames us all. It makes me ashamed at times to even be a part of the political process’ (8). Feeling themselves spinning out of control, it seems the Tories want to bring the political process down with them.
Brent East did not cause a ‘political earthquake’, but it certainly managed to shake up our uncertain and cowardly political leaders.
The danger of making politics a dirty word, by Mick Hume
(1) See Labour reels from by-election defeat, BBC News, 19 September 2003
(2) ‘From Brent to Baghdad’, Andy McSmith, Independent, 21 September 2003
(3) Blair takes a hit – is Bush next?, John Nichols, Nation, 19 September 2003
(4) Disillusionment ‘offers best chance to break political mould since Thatcher’, Michael White and Sarah Hall, Guardian, 23 September 2003
(5) Disillusionment ‘offers best chance to break political mould since Thatcher’, Michael White and Sarah Hall, Guardian, 23 September 2003
(6) Government must change or die, warns Blunkett, Ananova, 21 September 2003
(7) Government must change or die, warns Blunkett, Ananova, 21 September 2003
(8) Tories accuse government of recklessly pursuing revenge, Ananova, 23 September 2003
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