Nobody wins election that never was!
After the Eastleigh by-election, the question is not just who might win the next British General Election, but what is politics for anymore?
The by-election for the parliamentary seat of Eastleigh in Hampshire, England last week provided a snapshot of the vacuous state of British political life. It left unanswered not only the usual questions about who might win the next UK General Election, but also the rather bigger question of what is politics for today?
Eastleigh was an election fought in the national spotlight, described as a vital test for the governing coalition parties and the opposition alike. If so, they all failed, since no party emerged triumphant and all the major players were left looking as isolated from the electorate as they have ever been.
The other striking thing about this ‘historic’ by-election is how quickly it has disappeared from public view. A week ago, Eastleigh was being presented as a defining moment in UK political life. A week later it is as if it never happened at all. Such is the irrelevance of the empty circus of parliamentary politics when it comes to addressing the crisis in our society today.
The bare result was that the Liberal Democrats held on to Eastleigh with a reduced majority of 1,771 votes – down from the majority of 3,864 won by disgraced former minister Chris Huhne at the 2010 General Election. The UK Independence Party (UKIP) came second this time, leaving the Tories trailing in third place and Labour a distant fourth.
In real terms, however, no party can claim to have triumphed in Eastleigh. By holding the seat, the Lib Dems, junior partners in the coalition government, might have appeared to defy their lowly status in national opinion polls, where their ratings have fallen as low as single figures. But this was a cause for relief rather than rejoicing. Eastleigh is one of the strongest bastions of local Lib Dem organisation in Britain, the only local authority where every single elected councillor is currently a Liberal Democrat. If deputy prime minister Nick Clegg’s party had failed to retain Eastleigh it would, as party bigwigs admitted afterwards, have had nowhere left to go. Even so the Lib Dems’ share of the vote plunged by more than 14 per cent.
The most obvious losers were prime minister David Cameron’s Tories, who saw Eastleigh as their chance to demonstrate that they could win a majority at the next General Election and put their coalition partners in their place. In the event the Conservative campaign turned from high ambition to low farce, with their candidate effectively gagged because she disagreed with Cameron’s leadership line on everything from Europe to gay marriage. Like the Lib Dems, the Tories’ share of the vote also slumped by around 14 per cent. They finished a humiliating third in a seat they had held quite securely until 1994, when their MP died of ‘auto-erotic asphyxiation’ and the Lib Dems won the subsequent by-election.
The Labour Party was the other big loser, trailing in fourth with fewer than 10 per cent of the vote, their share up just 0.22 per cent since 2010. Even under Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour has been romping ahead of the unpopular coalition parties in national opinion polls of late. Everybody knows, however, that to have a chance of winning a General Election Labour needs to break out if its bunker and show it can win southern seats – such as Eastleigh. In last week’s by-election, Labour did not just fail to win or compete in Eastleigh; it might as well not have turned up at all, so little impact did its campaign and ‘comedy’ candidate make. Labour was no more a player in this high-profile election than were the usual collection of fringe candidates such by-elections attract. (Students of that losers’ contest at the bottom of the poll might note that the Beer, Baccy and Crumpet Party made a relative breakthrough, its total of 235 votes beating the combined vote of the Monster Raving Loony and Elvis Loves Pets parties.) So much for Miliband’s Labour being ready to form a government, or even to attract dissident Lib Dem voters.
The one party that did make significant headway in Eastleigh was of course UKIP, the anti-EU outfit whose successes have generally been confined to Euro-elections. Nigel Farage’s party came from nowhere to win almost 28 per cent of the votes cast. This impressive advance in votes, up from just 3.6 per cent in 2010, led to much talk about how UKIP is on the verge of a major political breakthrough – and about how the panicky Tories need to heed the warning and turn right to ward off the UKIP challenge. These reactions misinterpret the UKIP vote as badly as those who wrote the party off beforehand.
What did UKIP’s advance in Eastleigh really mean? Arguably, both less and more than has been suggested. Less, in the sense that, despite the impression given by Farage’s lap of honour around the TV studios, his party did not win. The big by-election shocks of recent decades have involved the Liberal Democrats or Scottish Nationalists overturning big majorities to win seats against the odds. By contrast, up against the wounded Lib Dems in a fairly marginal seat, UKIP failed even to emulate the achievement of George Galloway’s little left-wing Respect party, which managed to turf the ‘resurgent’ Labour Party out of one of its safest seats, Bradford West, a year ago. UKIP remains a fringe player looking for its first MP.
Its vote probably also represents less than has been claimed in terms of a ‘right-wing Euro-sceptic’ backlash against Cameron’s Tory modernisers. In fact, all the indications are that UKIP took potential votes, not just from the Tories, but from the Lib Dems and Labour, too. In this sense it became the latest all-purpose repository for the votes of those disaffected with mainstream politics – a role previously occupied by the Lib Dems, Scot Nats, and even Respect. The precise policies UKIP put forward in this sense mattered less to many voters than the ‘outsider’ status of their party and its sort-of celebrity frontman, Farage.
In another sense, however, UKIP’s advance in Eastleigh might well represent something more than has been widely suggested. Yes, it might well have been essentially, as the other parties insisted, a ‘protest vote’. But that does not mean the mainstream politicians should smugly assume that the voters are just having a little tantrum and will inevitably come back home to their parents at General Election time. Because these recent by-election votes for a UKIP or a Respect look like protests not merely against a particular party or policy, but against the entire rotten remains of British parliamentary politics. They are an inchoate lashing out at all the parties, a none-of-the-above statement that expresses the yawning gap between the public and the political elites. That is what a lot of the apparent ‘Euro-scepticism’ among voters also represents – less an expression of traditional British nationalism than a rejection of the EU as the ultimate embodiment of alienated, unrepresentative political institutions that loom over our lives.
This situation is a product of an emptied-out political order where parties stand for nothing more principled than their own re-election, and leaders all look like interchangeable members of the same oligarchic club. The old politics of left and right have long been exhausted and rendered redundant. Yet nothing of substance has emerged to replace them. This was well reflected in the Eastleigh campaign, a media-oriented outburst of sound and fury signifying nothing in the real world. All sides congratulated themselves for not allowing the criminal and sexual scandals afflicting the Lib Dems from interfering with the by-election campaign. But they had so little else to offer in terms of a vision of the future that some might have welcomed a bit of scandalous gossip to liven things up.
The emptiness of the Eastleigh by-election charade helps to explain the other striking feature – the speed with which it has disappeared from the public mind, as if it had never happened. One moment it was the focus of a national media furore, the apparent acid test for all the aspirant political leaders of the age. Yet almost the next moment, Eastleigh had shrunk into the mists of time like a southern Brigadoon, returned to its status as a faraway Hampshire town of which most people know little and frankly care less.
Since nothing of substance really happened in Eastleigh, it has left no visible mark on the political landscape. Politicians with no principles and little or nothing to say about the problems facing our society mean no more to most people than the latest reality TV stars whose shallow stardom they wish to emulate. The grinding realities of the ongoing economic crisis soon made the ‘historic’ election that never was a footnote.
Of course the political elites continue to pore over the entrails of Eastleigh, in search of some meaning of which they can make sense. But they have not a clue how to relate to the electorate in circumstances where most of the 52 per cent of voters who turned out in Eastleigh feel just as disaffected as the 48 per cent who did not bother. Tory prime minister Cameron may insist that there will be no ‘lurch to the right’ in response to the setback. But we can be sure there will be plenty of lurching in all directions – by political parties desperate to connect with a constituency somehow, and by voters keen to get away from them.
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