Thoughts on Barnsley Central: another Lib Dem disaster

March 5, 2011

Before anyone starts designing “Ed Miliband: Prime Minister in 2015″ mugs, let’s remember that this was an average performance for Labour in Barnsley Central. Yes, they won 60.8% of the vote, but that’s almost exactly the same figure they won in 2005 (61.1%).

Even when Eric Illsey had a massive expenses-shaped cloud hanging over his head in May, for which he ended up being imprisoned, Labour won with a majority of 11,000, which is about the same number as Dan Jarvis’s majority now.

So there really isn’t much point in popping champagne corks in Labour HQ just yet. None of this has anything to do with Ed Miliband. He’s the equivalent of a new football manager who has just beaten two teams in the relegation zone in his first two games.

It is interesting that, as with Oldham East, the misdemeanours of the previous Labour MP simply wasn’t an issue. This is hardly surprising, as I remarked in the Old and Sad post-mortem, people care more about the impending spending cuts than who claimed what on an expenses claim form years ago.

In his acceptance speech Dan Jarvis quoted a lifelong Tory voter, a pensioner, who apparently said to him on the doorstep something to the effect of:

This Tory-led government is cutting spending too far and too fast. It’s bad for jobs.

(I honestly cannot remember the exact quote; I can’t find the full speech online and I saw it at 1.20am so my recollection of it is hazy)

I’d be surprised if the pensioner actually referred to a “Tory-led government”, but I am sure she expressed those sentiments about the spending cuts.

For the Lib Dems, this was an almighty kicking. After narrowly finishing second in May, they finished sixth (yes, sixth!) losing 5000 votes in the process. They were beaten into fifth by an independent, who is an unemployed miner with no party machine, and the BNP finished fourth (but lost one-third of their votes from May, which is a reason to be cheerful).

Alarm bells must be ringing in Nick Clegg’s ears, despite his protestations to the contrary. In the long-term, the fate of the Lib Dems depends on the state of the economy in 2015. For now, however, it’s clear that it’s looking disastrous in the short-term for them. Local elections in May could see them completely obliterated.

The big winners of the night were UKIP, who finished second. I don’t know enough about their campaign in Barnsley to comment on why they more than doubled their vote share (4.7% in May to 12.2% now). Judging from this billboard, they went down the “human rights” angle:

It shows that, strategically, David Cameron is falling between two stools. His attempts to “detoxify” the Tory brand didn’t quite work, as seen by the fact he failed to gain a majority against a morally and intellectually bankrupt Labour Party in May last year.

Indeed, one of the most interesting parts of Andrew Neil’s documentary calling for the return of grammar schools was when he discussed polling data which suggested that C1 and C2 types, the “aspirational working and lower-middle-class” that would have voted Thatcher in the ’80s didn’t vote Tory in constituencies like Birmingham Edgbaston because they were perceived as being “too posh”. It’s voters like these that cost Cameron an overall majority.

However, by his attempts to make the Tories appear “fluffy” he has managed to alienate a great portion of the Tory right.

This was well-illustrated by Norman Tebbit, in the most mind-boggling column I’ve ever seen hosted by a national newspaper site.

After explaining that Arabs “don’t do democracy”, defending the poll tax, taking a sideswipe at Chris Patten and referring to the ECHR as “mad judicial imperialists”, Tebbit goes on to say:

I still do not know where, apart from to a Big Society gay wedding in Westminster Abbey, the Prime Minister really wants to go.

Tebbit went within a gnat’s tadger of backing UKIP in Oldham East, and a few more results like that of Barnsley Central could see him fully jump ship, along with, potentially, a few more right-wing Tories.

I’m not sure I can ever fully understand the motives of people who look at this current administration and say, “You know what the problem is with the coalition? They’re just SO left-wing”. But there is definite discontent within the Tory right, and UKIP is picking up on it.

However, one still should not overplay UKIP’s success. They only won 12% of the votes: less than 3000 in total. It hardly sees them becoming, as Nigel Farage put it “the voice of opposition in British politics” – yet. Also, governments always get kickings in by-elections.

Still, Ed Miliband and Nigel Farage will be happy, and David Cameron and Nick Clegg will not. For if David Cameron tries to placate the Tory right with some more “centre-right”-type policies, that can only serve to annoy even more the few remaining Lib Dem voters.

Unlike a few partisan Labourites I know, I can’t take much pleasure from the Lib Dem implosion. It’s like watching a friend you thought you used to know go completely off the rails. I can’t see anything other than oblivion happening in May for them now.


The Lib Dems in government part 5: the secret tapes edition

January 15, 2011

Just before the general election I went to a hustings in my hometown, with my parents and some family friends. This was just after the first leaders debate and the outbreak of Cleggmania. Our constituency had been represented, for the previous thirteen years, by a very popular Liberal Democrat, who had turned the seat from a conservative stronghold, in the 90s, to the nearest thing the Liberal Democrats have to a safe seat. Labour had been squeezed down to 10% of the vote and all but given up on the seat, putting forward a candidate who was younger than me. In the event, the evening turned out to be a bit of a one horse race.

The Conservative candidate’s opening gambit was that whilst the incumbent was all well and good these Liberal Democrats would never have any real influence and only he could guarantee a “seat at the top table” from which to represent his constituent’s interests. This was delivered in such a pompous style that it was hard to hold back laughter. As one of the family friends said later, far from being at the top table he was “lobby fodder – at best”. He compounded his error by saying, in reply to a question about the representation of women, that we needed more women in government because “women know how to balance a household budget”.

 Neither the Labour nor UKIP candidates managed to hold their own under even the most gentle of questioning. The sitting MP just stood up and confidently laid out his record in office and after that any sense of competition was just blown out of the water.

The questions mainly stuck to local issues and by the end of the evening the audience had sunk into a stupour. On the final question I thought of something to ask. I put up my hand but someone else was chosen. His question was something parochial about primary schools that had been covered earlier in the evening. You could feel the sense of anticlimax in the room. Then the host, our local vicar, decided to put an end to that question and take a new one. This time I was picked. Phrasing my question carefully to maximize the chance of a straight answer, I asked our MP, in the event of a hung Parliament upon what basis would the Liberal Democrats choose a coalition partner and prioritising which policies.

There was a rumble of interest as the audience roused from their stupour. He replied (or didn’t reply) that it wasn’t vote Clegg get Cameron, or vote Clegg get Brown but that a vote for him would get Nick Clegg and Vince Cable (this was back when this still had some cache) and that if we wanted to know their priorities we should look at their manifesto. A couple of weeks later he was returned to office, the Liberal Democrats went into coalition with the Conservative and he himself was made a junior government minister.

Looking at events since, their manifesto doesn’t seem to have been such an accurate indicator of their action in coalition. It has become clear that, even as early as the coalition negotiations, Nick Clegg was arguing against his party’s own stated position on deficit reduction. Of course since then we have had the u-turn on tuition fees from most of the Liberal Democrat front bench and a good number of their backbenchers, as well. This was something that went beyond a manifesto commitment, each Liberal Democrat MP, individually, signed unequivocal pledges, promising not to raise fees, garnering lots of votes in the process. Now we learn that they may even back down on control orders, conceding their one remaining position of high ground on civil liberties. At least one Lib Dem MP has dishonestly tried to argue that there apparent argument that their apparent reversal is in fact not a reversal at all.

The more common argument has been that they didn’t win the election and so are in no position to implement their manifesto, and if the public wants to see Lib Dem policies, they should elect a Lib Dem majority. This is not only irrelevant in the case of tuition fees – the controversy was not over their manifesto, which people cannot expect to be implemented in full in coalition (although it would be nice to see some of it), it was about individual pledges by individual Lib Dem candidates to vote a certain way- but disingenuous. Nobody seriously expected the Lib Dems to win an overall majority and, as the exchange in my local Baptist church hall shows, people were most highly concerned with what would happen in the event of a coalition. Most importantly, whilst the Lib Dems did not win the election, neither did the Conservatives. They are now in the position of pushing through the most radically conservative fiscal policy seen in generations, to devastating effect to many if not most people in the country, with a 36.1% vote share on a 65.1% turnout. That’s just 23.5% of the available vote. They have only been able to do this because a party has completely reversed the positions on which it campaigned. There is a fundamental subversion of the democratic principle here.

This all brings us to the revelations in the Daily Telegraph. Several Liberal Democrats, including Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, and my very own Steve Webb MP, were recorded by Telegraph journalists posing as constituents, making indiscrete comments about their coalition partners. Notwithstanding Vince Cable’s apparent inability to maintain blood flow to his brain in the presence of certain female journalists, these revelations actually make me respect them more. The worst part of the Lib Dems’ incorporation into the government has been the constant cheerleading for the policies that have been fed to them; the pretence that nothing is wrong. The suggestion that there may be policies that “haven’t seen the light of day” because of Lib Dem intervention and that they may be picking their battles is encouraging. The only hope for coalition between such diametrically opposed parties is one of open negotiation, where the differences are clearly delineated, possibly with independent portfolios. This would be challenging for British politics, with its dominant tradition that the government must maintain a united front against the public, with whips and collective responsibility. It would certainly mean running the gamut of press obsessed with gossip and psychodrama. Instead the Liberal Democrats seem to be being gradually cannibalised by their senior partners in government.

In reality, this was always going to be an extremely damaging term of office for whichever government was formed in May, especially with the numbers as they were. Labour couldn’t have survived another term of office without suffering electoral wipeout. No party has ever governed for more than four terms, and Labour was facing a tough economy and falling popularity. The Lib Dems faced a choice of patching together a wafer thin overall majority with an unpopular party with an unpopular leader and a rag tag of minor parties with their own agendas, or tying itself to a party whose policies its supporters abhorred. The only question was who was going to take the poisoned chalice. With their poll ratings going through the floor, the Lib Dems are now in a dire position. Do they activate Vince Cable’s nuclear weapon soon and face an angry electorate, or soldier on, possibly sustaining even more damage? They may, even now, be past the point of no return.


Paperback Rioter’s Review of 2010

December 29, 2010

This is the seemingly obligatory end-of-year roundup. Like this blog, this review does not intend to be comprehensive or systematic, and instead hopes to be personal and idiosyncratic. With that in mind, let’s roll:

Worst moment of 2010: After delivering leaflets and door-knocking until 9.30pm on election night for Elwyn Watkins, and then staying up until 2pm waiting for the result to come in, finding out that Phil Woolas had been elected MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth by 103 votes.

Best moment of 2010: Finding out that Phil Woolas had lost his appeal, and was indeed kicked out of Parliament and barred from standing as an MP for three years.

Subject I have been unhealthily obsessed with this year: Go on, take a flying guess…

Other highlights of my year:
- My two weeks shadowing at a primary school, which I absolutely loved, and I realised that primary teaching was what I wanted to do.
- Finding out that some people actually like what I write on this blog.
- Brad Haddin getting out to make Australia 77-7 in the last Ashes match.
- I also attended my first wedding (congratulations, Becky and Nick!).

I could list many more, but that would get a bit dull for you. Basically, in 2010 I had a great time.

Quote of the year: “Yes we can. But…”  – Barack Obama on the Daily Show.

Ironic fact of the year: The Daily Telegraph and the rest of the right-wing press conducted a desperate smear campaign against Nick Clegg in the last week of the election campaign. Who would have thought that the best way to make him unelectable and discredited was to appoint him Deputy Prime Minister?

My favourite news clip of 2010: The Daily Show coverage of the BP oil spill, back in the days when you thought the leaking would never stop.

The fact that proved Test cricket is still the shizzle in 2010: I had completely forgotten that England won the World T20 cup until Aatif talked about it on Test Match Sofa yesterday.

The biggest Pyrrhic Defeat of 2010: England not being given the rights to host the 2018 World Cup. The build up to this year’s was bad enough as it is. Then when England had not been given hosting rights, the Daily Mail blamed it on the fact that our promotional video had lots of black people in it. All the talk of “passion” and the soft-core xenaphobia exhibited by some England fans after the vote was nauseating as well.

Sobering sporting fact of 2010: I have been punished for my sins in a past life by being made an Oldham Athletic fan in this one. Earlier this year our two owners, who have bankrolled the club since saving us from bankruptcy six years ago, have said they are unable to continue funding the club. Oldham’s annual turnover is less than the amount that Manchester United pay Rio Ferdinand. A striking example of the poisonous inequality affecting English football (and society) at the moment.

My five best discoveries of 2010:

1) Test Match Sofa
I cannot believe that it was only this summer I discovered this online cricket commentary station. I’ve written about them before, so don’t need to drone on about them here. Thanks for keeping me company while I wrote my thesis, chaps.

2) The Shield
I spent most of the first half of 2010 watching this TV series with my housemate John. (John, if you’re reading this, please come back! Question Time isn’t the same without you!) John glibly summarised it as “The Wire for Republicans”, and that isn’t too far off the mark. It’s a police procedural that’s absorbing, entertaining and has some damned good acting. Worth buying with your Christmas money.

3) Twitter
I set up my @goldenstrawb Twitter account last year, but only really started tweeting this year. Since then it’s helped me make some new friends, brought my attention to some very impressive blogs, and kept my sanity during Question Time (just about) by being able to live-tweet it. What’s not to love?

4) Tony Judt
I sadly only found out about Tony Judt and his work after the publicity that surrounded his tragically early death in August. I’ve been making up for lost time since then: I’ve read Ill Fares the Land and The Memory Chalet, read some of Reappraisals, and bought (but yet to read) Postwar. He is a wonderful historian and political thinker, and shall be sorely missed.

5) Tom Lehrer
It was my very dear friend Ed who introduced me to Tom Lehrer, courtesy of this song. I can’t believe I’d lived without his sense of humour for so long.

Album of the 2010: Obviously this is Elvis Costello with National Ransom. Another very impressive album, and his most interesting since The Delivery Man in 2004. Listen to the title track, be impressed, buy the album. Or listen to it on Spotify.

Song of the Year: John Hiatt, The Open Road. I found that Hiatt’s latest album as a whole was a little bit “meh”, mainly because it was all overshadowed by this opening track, one of the best songs I’ve heard in years. 

My favourite Paperback Rioter post of 2010: The Hunt for Raoul Moat did not take place. I’m quite proud of this one.

My favourite blog post of 2010: Probably Laurie Penny’s gonzo-style piece on the Millbank Riots.

My favourite piece of writing of 2010: Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land. I found it incredibly inspiring, especially given the circumstances in which it was written. Buy the book. Just buy it.

Five reasons to be cheerful for 2011:

1) There’s a referendum on the voting system! And you should all vote Yes to AV, as I shall be explaining on this blog in tedious detail. If you don’t, expect me to come round to your house and give you a stern talking-to.

2) The student protests: It’s nice to see some political action rather than political apathy. Keeping it non-violent, and gaining support from outside the student movement, is key for the next year.

3) The implosion of the BNP in the May elections: Obviously the rise of the EDL is incredibly worrying. But let’s just be happy that there was no massive increase in vote for the BNP as some doom-mongers had thought there would be.

4) ENGLAND HAVE RETAINED THE ASHES! We’ll hold the urn until at least 2013. In your face, Australia.

5) The detention of child asylum-seekers will end during 2011: I don’t like a great deal of what this coalition government is doing, but we might as well celebrate the good stuff they do before the cuts hit/while it lasts.

If this is insufficient optimism for you, then go and read the Independent’s 21 reasons to be cheerful.

Two inspiring quotations for 2011: both by Bertrand Russell on the subject of happiness:

The secret to happiness is to face the fact that the world is horrible.

And

The secret of happiness is this: let your interests be as wide as possible, and let your reactions to the things and persons that interest you be as far as possible friendly rather than hostile.

Have a great New Year.


Fantastic Headlines, No 10

August 12, 2010

Another entry from the Daily Telegraph. Perhaps not strictly “fantastic”, but the headline amused me:

Jar of Marmite costs more than a gallon of petrol

A fiver for 500g of Marmite! Maybe this is my inner Northerner coming out, but that ain’t bloody right.

The editor of the Grocer said:

“But Marmite does not appear to contain any ingredients that have been subject to sharp price hikes. This could be a case of Unilever trying to increase its profit margins.”

So the headline could be “Multinational company raises prices to increase profits shocker”.

Which would be just as accurate. But less fantastic.


Fantastic Headlines, No 8

July 26, 2010

Thanks to my friend John Ritchie for posting this story on Facebook. I’d never have found this otherwise. From the Daily Telegraph, a newspaper you wouldn’t normally associate with OTT headlines. This one is a real gem though:

“Transvestite had sex with a dog at English heritage castle”

The tag line tells us that the, ahem, incident actually took place in the moat. Maybe that’s why Douglas Hogg claimed so much money to clean them out?

For those feeling uneasy about going round castles now have no fear, because:

A spokesman for English Heritage said: “This was a very rare incident”.

I should bloody well hope so.


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