Outside the marginals

A commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010, 2015 & 2017 elections (and THAT referendum)

Copeland and the Search for Opposition

The Copeland by-election result is being played as “disastrous” for the Labour Party and is once again raising questions about the Labour leadership. In some respects the Labour Leadership is not the issue – but a search for opposition is.

In this respect we have to be careful about reading too much into the Copeland result.

By-elections are often called “shock results”, but this is as much to do with our voting system being sclerotic and unresponsive as it is the electorate wanting to “send a shock”. When eventually there is a change it can be violent – as seen in the EU Referendum Result.

By-elections have the potential to cause a major apparent “flip” whether they are Orpington, Hillhead, Crosby, or Clacton or Rochester.

If we had a system such as STV where Cumbria might be a five or six seat constituency, we would probably see some adjustment at every general election. This would not just be between parties but also within parties – as voters are offered a real choice between different candidates representing different shades of opinion.

Labour and the Conservatives might expect to hold 2-4 depending on sentiment on election day, and the Liberals would hope to retain one, whilst UKIP and the Greens might also feel they are in with a chance looking at their support across the country. (Under STV in a five seat constituency, any party achieving just over 1/6th of the vote would expect to get their most popular candidate in, 2/6ths – and the second most popular should be elected etc.)

West Cumbria is an unusual area – it is the fringe of part of the country that is often forgotten and take for granted. Demographically you would expect it to be Labour, but given the importance of the nuclear industry – which is only enthusiastically backed by one party – it is possible to boil down the voting question to an uncomfortable choice:

  • Do you want a job (in the nuclear industry and those parts of the economy dependent on it) even though you may end up having a worse NHS and less welfare, or
  • Do you want to risk being out of work even though you may have a fully functioning local hospital?

In the current environment a few people “unsurprisingly” switching to the first choice can bring about a “shock” result.

The result does however highlight whether we can (or even have the appetite or desire to) oppose this government. Labour seems ambivalent at best.

The Government’s overt agenda is to rip us out of the EU and to set us free on the high seas as a sort of latter-day free-wheeling free-trading even buccaneering restored quasi-imperial nation retaking its natural place in the world. It is appealing to those who feel downtrodden and have been sold the story that this is due to the country being downtrodden – rather than being inevitable due to Conservative or Labour led capitalism.

Its more covert agenda is minimal government where self-reliance is more important than social solidarity. So cut taxes and reduce government spending on welfare, the NHS and local government. We are being ratcheted a little bit in that direction whenever the government gets a chance. Once we are out of the EU, such changes may be forced on us as urgent necessities under Philip Hammond’s “New Economic Model”.

Finding a means to oppose this agenda (assuming we are allowed to without being accused of blocking “the will of the people”) is difficult – particularly where the electoral system is unresponsive and squeezes out diversity of opinion both at selection time (within the parties) and at election time (in the polling booths).

Traditionally within the “modern democracies” the main opposition tends to be “like the government, but less so” – it is not a genuine alternative, but just “government-light”. Tony Blair’s Labour party was “capitalism-light”.

The other approach is to offer a genuine alternative. This can either be principally disruptive – like UKIP or Trump, or driven by a different view of society. I think this is what (most of the time) Corbyn and his supporters are wanting to do. The Stoke By-election result, by itself, would not lead to any criticism of this approach.

From the above you would expect the story to be “why is UKIP ahead of the Conservatives, when the Conservatives are implementing the main plank of UKIP’s platform?”. Perhaps many in Stoke think it is better to vote for the “real thing” and see the tweed suited and flat capped Paul Nuttall as the “real thing”.

(Labour’s winning share of the vote in Stoke was less than its losing share of the vote in Copeland.)

Do the by-elections tell us very much? Not really.

Does the reaction of Non-Corbyn Labour tell us very much? I think so. They, whilst so keen to accept the will of the people in a dodgy referendum (Project Fear, LiarBus, Gideon’s Punishment Budget, Blustering Boris, Cameron’s strategic incompetence etc.) that they capitulate in the House of Commons, none-the-less are unwilling to accept the twice stated emphatic will of their members. “But it isn’t working they cry”! Do they really think that Brexit is working – at least for the people they are supposed to be representing?

It may at first sight seem strange that Labour’s traditional supporters might find their interests being better protected outside parliament by a privately educated investment manager born in British Guiana. But read deeper and it is perhaps inevitable that Gina Miller has a better understanding of their interests than some of the disenchanted professional Labour elite.

… by the age of 23, Miller was living in an east London flat, the single mother of a disabled child.

She worked as a waitress at Pizza Express and handed out flyers outside a mobile-phone shop in the cold for extra cash. “My values and principles are the same now as they were then,” she says, angry at the idea that if you are successful, you automatically become one of the elite.

Politics is in her blood. Miller’s father, Doodnauth Singh, was involved in opposition politics when Guyana was under the dictatorship of its strongman leader Forbes Burnham in the 1970s and 1980s.
New Statesman, 20 November 2016 | “This is bigger than just Brexit”: how Gina Miller held the government to account over the EU

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