After Crewe: where is the positive politics?

The by-election result was less a victory for Cameron’s hollow Conservatives than an angry, tired rejection of the failed political elite.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics UK

According to David Cameron, leader of the UK Conservative Party, the result of the Crewe and Nantwich by-election signals ‘the end of New Labour’ and the beginnings of a ‘Tory revival’. Well, he’s half right. In fact, the most striking thing about the Crewe election is how negative it was. The huge vote for Cameron’s Conservatives was not a positive endorsement of his hollow, principle-free party, but rather an angry, tired rejection of the failed Labour project, and of the political elite itself. Crewe and Nantwich signals something rather more historic than a ‘Tory revival’: it shows that there is no mainstream party in Britain that voters can feel positive about today.

The defeat for Labour was certainly a stunning one. The late Gwyneth Dunwoody, who was Labour MP for Crewe and Nantwich from 1983 until her death in April this year, won by a majority of 7,000 in the most recent General Election of 2005. This was real ‘safe Labour’ territory. Yet last night, the Labour candidate – Gwyneth’s daughter, Tamsin Dunwoody – lost by 8,000 votes. Tory candidate Edward Timpson won with 20,539 votes to Dunwoody’s 12,679, representing a 17.6 per cent swing to the Tories.

Many theories have been volunteered to explain Labour’s defeat. And aside from the nonsense notion that the result shows people are ‘returning’ to the Tories – with some even talking about an ‘historic realignment’ between ‘blue collar’ workers and the ‘blue rosette’ party (1) – most observers recognise that voters were rejecting something rather than endorsing something. Some claim the voters were reacting against Tamsin Dunwoody’s poisonous, toff-slating, immigrant-baiting campaign, in which she played up her own mundane ordinariness (and her hereditary political lineage) in a desperate bid to ‘get a job’ (2). Others say the vote was a rejection of ‘the New Labour project’ (even though Dunwoody, through her mother, is explicitly linked with Old Labour, too). PM Gordon Brown says voters were sending the government a message about ‘rising prices and the economy’.

Yet even these theories overlook the scale of the negative feelings in Crewe and Nantwich. The result looks less like an old-fashioned protest vote against clueless candidates or an increasingly incompetent ruling party, and more like an expression of exhaustion with the political class. A protest vote is often driven by dynamic anger with politicians. In Crewe and Nantwich, following one of the nastiest by-election campaigns in recent memory, the vote seemed almost entirely negative – not a positive endorsement of the Tories or a positive protest against Labour, but a rejection of an aloof and distant elite as represented by Labour officials and jobsworths.

Crewe and Nantwich has revealed something stark about mainstream politics in Britain: there now seems to be no party that people want to vote for. Many seem to vote Tories because they’re tired of Labour, or vote Labour from a feeling of habit and duty; others vote Lib Dem to signal their irritation with ‘The Two Big Parties’ or for fringe parties like the BNP to give a two-fingered salute to the entire political class. Observers frequently fret about that half of the electorate who don’t vote in local or general elections, insultingly referring to them as ‘apathetic’ – yet today even many of those who do vote do so from a negative standpoint. It is time, surely, to breathe life back into British politics and give people something worth supporting – and it seems certain that neither the chameleon Conservatives nor the finished Labour Party will be able to do that. After Crewe, spiked, for one, will seek to formulate a new, positive politics – watch this space.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.

Previously on spiked

Frank Furedi said the Crewe by-election was a Farce War, not Class War. Mick Hume attacked the cheapening of democracy evident in the local elections and saw in the celebrity mayor show a snapshot of contemporary politics. He said the Labour party died 25 years ago, and you can’t revive a corpse. Tim Black found local election posters patronising. Rob Lyons noted the crisis-ridden nature of Brown’s Labour government. David Chandler asked whyGordon Brown hates politics. Or read more at spiked issue British Politics.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.

(1) Blue collars and blue rosettes, Comment Is Free, 23 May 2008

(2) See Crewe by-election: Farce War, not Class War, by Frank Furedi

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

Topics Politics UK


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