Paul Goggins’ death was met by almost universal dismay and grief, from fellow councillors in Manchester to colleagues at Westminster from across all parties. Charity groups and campaigners mourned his untimely death, having collapsed whilst out running with his adult son, and even the usually enthusiastic amateur psephologist community on sites such as Political Betting and UKPolling kept speculation about the electoral consequences to a minimum. (Although Wikipedia’s editors did, as is the way over there, create an article about the forthcoming by-election within minutes of his death being confirmed.)
All the respect and remorse comes to pretty much nowt, however, with the likelihood of a fast turnaround by-election in Wythenshawe and Sale East expected by February 13. This weekend sees the first explicit campaigning of the campaign, with UKIP and Conservative members out on the streets. Prospective Labour candidates are named by ‘whispers’ and ‘sources close’ in the Manchester Evening News. Within a day of Goggins’ funeral in Manchester, politics has rucked up to the streets of Wythenshawe to introduce weary voters to the unconscious madness of a Westminster by-election campaign. Clowns and artists plenty, not many lions, in my experience. Maybe someone on a bike going round and round and round at high speed. Lots of greasy food.
By-elections attract the attention of statistic crunchers, Internet politics nerds, and the general Commentary Corps. because they have become so unusual in modern politics, and whenever they happen something unexpected is always likely to happen at least once. They almost always attract fringe or single-issue candidates (I remember at the Preston by-election of the year 2000 David Braid of the ‘Battle For Britain Christian Alliance’ fuming at the existence of women wearing make-up, homosexuality, and the Post Office.) Whilst by-elections caused by deaths are statistically less likely to occur these days – 15 occured between 1979 and 1983, whilst ‘WaSE’ is only the fifth since 2010 – the political world still feels a great nostalgia for the unexpected, unscripted, uncontrollable bun fights that they enable. It’s almost like a holiday, even in the safest seats where shock results rarely happen, even with events such as George Galloway in Bradford and the little local difficulty for Labour at Blaenau Gwent.
Fringe candidates have changed as politics in general has changed. No longer the sight of Sunday Sport candidates, so popular in the 1980s, taking advantage of the rules for free postage. No more Bill Boakes or Corrective Party. The need for candidates to register with the Electoral Commission has accelerated what might be called the professionalisation of
the fringe, a development you can see with the determined efforts of such grouplets to set up Twitter accounts and Flash/flash websites. There can be great joy in the smaller, obscure candidates joining in the fun and games for the unexpected one-off by-election circus, especially if they are from the long lost Natural Law Party providing unintentional comedic relief. Aside from, say, “Mr Mozzarella” who turned up at Crosby or the ubiquitous David Bishop of “Elvis Loves Pets” fame, there’s not much light relief at the midterms.
Whenever I peruse websites and blogs which promote alternatives to the mainstream political parties, my anorak tendency can’t help itself by urging those who want to stand to do so. So many flashes in the electoral pan – SPECTRE, Libertarian Party, British Freedom – vanish before they’ve done spamming The Daily Telegraph comments section. What a shame, says I, what a missed opportunity. What better way to record the mood of the nation than events like the Haltemprice and Howden by-election at which half a classroom turned up? Why can’t they all be like that?
This is my plea. For the madcap, the determined, the earnest, the otherwise disinterested, to make Wythenshawe and Sale East the place to be next month. Supporter of the Occupy movement? Horrifically racist? Split with a faction of a faction of a faction because of something somebody overheard somebody else say about Engles? Don’t agree with NHS reforms, immigration policy or putting pineapple on pizza? Just fancy having democracy happen all around you like a disappointing one night stand? Then please, find the money (*cough* £500 deposit, £120 registration fee *ahem*) and let’s make the by-election circus a celebration of everything to do with demonstrating, campaigning, democracy and plain old good fun. Think politicians “are all the same”, or worried that the big issues barely get covered or debated? Let’s get you all to south Manchester to fight it out with leaflets and photo-ops. I’m looking at you, Liberty GB, TUSC, BDP, Liberal Party, and all the other 330-odd registered as political parties (“British Unicorn Party”, “Truly Independent English Party”, “Patriotic Socialists”, “New Deal”), bring out the bunting and funny hats. Let’s make this by-election the biggest of its kind. Local residents might not thank me, but democracy sure will.