Ealing Southall: a comedy of errors

A Tory candidate who gives cash to Labour? Today's west London by-election shows up the volatile nature of British politics.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

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Topics Politics

It’s an Ealing comedy! Today’s by-election in the west London constituency of Ealing Southall has been a gift for lazy political headline writers. For the Conservatives, it’s been a nightmare of cack-handed misjudgement. But the events of the last couple of weeks are a timely illustration of the changing nature of British politics.

The by-election is the result of the death of the Labour MP, Piara Khabra. With a large Asian population, this should be a safe seat for Labour, as reflected in the vote last time: Khabra won almost twice as many votes as his nearest rival in the 2005 General Election. But by-elections are an opportunity for all sorts of local, national and transient issues to come to the fore, with the result that predicting the result can be a hazardous occupation.

The Conservatives trailed in third place in 2005. But with little enthusiasm in recent times for the Labour government, they felt they had a decent chance of causing an upset this time round. What they needed was the right candidate – and that meant, unusually for them, an Asian candidate. Tony Lit seemed perfect: a former male model, director of a local radio station and, apparently, a successful local businessman. The Lit family are no strangers to politics, either. Tony’s dad, Avtar, ran for election in the same constituency in 2001, under the banner of his own Sunshine party (which is also the name of the radio station the Lit family owns). Avtar did pretty well, coming a very respectable third.

Tony Lit doesn’t appear to have been even a member of the Conservative Party until days before he became its candidate. Worse, he was photographed smiling broadly with another Tony – former prime minister Blair – at a Labour party fundraiser just a week before being unveiled with much pomp as the Conservatives’ man. Okay, schmoozing with the prime minister isn’t such a crime – but handing over a £4,800 donation to the Labour Party rather dents Lit’s credibility as a solid Tory supporter (1).

The trouble is, being solidly Labour or Conservative – or loyal to any other party for that matter – seems increasingly a matter of personal taste today. So it was that a group of local Sikh councillors, apparently miffed that their man hadn’t been selected as the Labour candidate for the by-election, jumped ship and joined the Conservatives (2). This was only a couple of weeks after Tory MP Quentin Davies had gone in the opposite direction in the House of Commons. In fact, British politics seems to have more defections these days than a John Le Carré novel.

It is also entirely reasonable for Tony Lit to court both sides – giving donations to Labour then suddenly standing for the Conservatives. That’s because politics has been reduced to managerialism. Policy is determined by think-tanks and strategy units without reference to any underlying principle. While Labour hounded the Conservative government with allegations of ‘sleaze’ in the 1997 General Election, in truth politics has become increasingly about personal advancement because no one is fighting for any wider vision of the ‘good society’.

This reveals itself in many ways. For example, it was striking that Gordon Brown’s first Cabinet included so many young faces that had come through the ranks as policy wonks or personal advisers. Their place at the table is entirely down to the personal patronage of Brown. In turn, they will owe their loyalty not to the party or the country but to Brown himself (see The gravedigger in Downing Street, by Mick Hume).

The flipside is an increasing disinterest in being a member of these parties. Why bother committing time and money when you’re unlikely to influence party policy? For example, the Labour Party had 201,374 members at the end of 2004. By the end of 2006, the number had fallen to 182,370 – an all-time low since the party started recording membership in 1928. The Liberal Democrats membership fell from 72,721 to 68,743 in the same period (3). While the Conservatives may have gained a few members in the aftermath of David Cameron becoming leader, their membership is also thought to be in decline from around 290,000 at the start of 2006 (4). Such a trend in declining membership has been going on for some time. When Blair became prime minister, Labour’s membership was around 400,000. While John Major led a Tory administration from 1992 to 1997, Conservative membership fell from 750,000 to 350,000 (5).

Moreover, the nature of membership has changed dramatically. In the past, there was a social scene in many parts of the country around the Labour or Conservative club. Party members were much more likely to be active around their local constituencies. Not only are their fewer members today, but these members are much less active – and much less loyal.

This has consequences: for one thing, the major parties are skint. One of the reasons floated why Gordon Brown won’t cut-and-run for an autumn General Election while still in his ‘honeymoon’ period is that Labour simply can’t afford to – the party currently has debts of around £25million (6). The parties have been hit by a double-whammy. They have less money coming in from party members and other sources, but they also need more money for huge advertising campaigns. There are fewer activists on the ground to do the legwork of getting the message – and the voters – out for free.

With any old Tom, Dick or Tony running as their candidates, falling memberships and no money in the fighting fund, the parties are desperate to find new ways of reaching an audience. Amid the fallout of the embarrassing revelations about Tony Lit, David Cameron has launched Stand Up, Speak Up, a kind of blogging service to encourage ‘direct democracy’ via the Telegraph website (7). In effect, he wants to turn the entire country into a great big focus group.

The question is, Dave (and Gordon and Menzies, too): stand up, speak up for what? Until they come up with some clear answers to that question, their parties will continue to be increasingly empty vessels with dubious candidates and little sense of purpose. And whoever wins in Ealing Southall today, that by-election has already provided a striking snapshot of our emptied-out, chameleon political culture.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons argued that the Liberal Democrats only succeed where the big parties fail. Mick Hume thought that the Conservatives couldn’t win a General Election, even under Cameron, but New Labour could lose one. Neil Davenport thought that David Cameron’s alleged drug-taking past is a vote-winner today while he thought ‘Webcameron’ showed that the Tory leader could only engage with the electorate as bored teenagers. Or read more at spiked issue British politics.

(1) Tory by-election candidate is Labour donor, Sunday Telegraph, 15 July 2007

(2) Tory byelection coup as five Labour councillors defect, Guardian, 9 July 2007

(3) Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats declare membership figures in their annual accounts.

(4) Conservatives’ success story stalls, Daily Telegraph, 27 December 2006

(5) Labour membership halved, Guardian, 3 August 2004

(6) UK Labour Party Membership Falls to Lowest Ever Recorded, Bloomberg.com, 17 July 2007

(7) Stand up, speak up: shaping Tory policy, Daily Telegraph, 17 July 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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