Jumping into the ballot box

Some moons ago I wrote on the matter of Government reshuffles, those flurries of end of the pier entertainment which used to occupy the minds of ministers more than their job requirements. Read any diary or memoir of the time and the promise of a change in job underlines almost every decision, accompanying every minister like a shadow. The phone at the end of a corridor becomes more attractive than the office secretary.

The other parlour game of British politics is the good old fashioned defection. Once a mainstay of the political process, for whatever reason the high-profile ship jumper has become something of a rear treat. Defectors were always assumed to be somehow “special”, dismissed by former colleagues in often very colourful language (read Alan Clark’s diaries for the most colourful), welcomed with photo-ops and smiles by their new leader. MPs defect less often these days – Quentin Davies and Shaun Woodward being the most recent – and the prominence has been deadened over the years in any case.

Until, perhaps, this year: of the Jubilee, the Olympics and scaremongering Mayans. Starting with a piece in the Times and on ConservativeHome last week, rumours about defections from the Conservatives to UKIP have grown from just the two MPs to potentially a dozen or more. Suddenly the defection thing seems to have regained its relevance and, yes, sexiness. This is the stuff which pumped the blood of long since forgotten political times, after all. Of course, this drum banging intrigue does tend to fall apart at the sight of some of the names – Nadine Dorries is many things, but she’s neither particularly powerful and definitely not sexy. Bill Cash and the like are not exactly big hitters either, being much of the ‘old boys’ brigade for whom accompanying headlines – “Anti-EU backbencher joins anti-EU party” – would not cause David Cameron much of a headache.

The UK Independence Party has been a constant in British politics now for over twenty years. It has singularly failed to get any of its candidates elected to Westminster, but from Parish Council to Brussels, the UKIP success story is more remarkable than its critics might ever concede. Its done fantastically well despite only having one policy, changing its high profile leader Nigel Farage for an obscure Peer during the last election, and being unable to explain how its well paid MEPs have brought the country ever nearer its aim of leaving the EU from inside their very nice offices in Strasbourg. Somehow the party with little credibility outside its hobby horse has managed to grow in strength and size by achieving precisely nothing. What UKIP has always enjoyed, however, is a credible protest vote attraction to them. They are not the British National Party, knuckle-dragging anti-everythings without unity or purpose. They can’t point to success in their aim to drag the UK out of the European Union, but they can still attract votes. And with a hung parliament in 2010 and something similar possible in a reduced House of Commons in 2015, Nigel Farage knows exactly how significant his party has become.

Let’s assume one backbench Conservative MP defects prior to, or just following, next month’s local elections. No great problem for Cameron – if the jump is to UKIP and the defector is a known “old boy” looking for handshakes and a new tie, there is no real winner. Farage will point to his new MP sitting with fellow “one party states” George Galloway (Respect, Bradford West) and Caroline Lucas (Green, Brighton Pavilion) and talk of “a new breath of air in British politics”. Here comes the smaller parties, despite first past the post, proving that Britain wants real change. 

Two, maybe three, possibly four MPs going across would be difficult for Cameron to defend, though the nature and character of the “gang” may do his argument the world of good. “They are just one-policy nutters,” he could explain, “going to a one-policy pressure group.” Local Conservative associations might not appreciate their MPs suddenly taking a leap into the unknown like so many lemmings draped in the Union Flag. There could be more tension in the Party as different shades of right-wing battle it out amongst themselves. “Whilst that lot busy themselves like ferrets, ” Cameron would tell the House, “I’m getting on with leading the country.”
Things will get tougher if the rumours, some of which come from hints and allegations within UKIP, that the true number of Tory defectors is nearer two-dozen. That’s not normal. That’s unexpected. And that is a constitutional earthquake. Yes, it makes the Conservatives smaller in the Commons, less anti-EU and presumably less right -wing. Yes, it even shores up the Liberal Democrats within the Coalition, who find themselves speaking with a louder voice as the backbenches empty around them. Though what would a mass phalanx of anti-EU defections do to the governance of the country? Would it need the MPs to resign on mass, causing by-elections across the land to smoke out ‘true’ conservatives, forcing local associations to choose between party loyalty and perceived patriotism? Would Labour capitalise on the splits within the Government by forcing through amendments to controversial health, welfare and education legislation? Could they even force a vote of no confidence? Could there even be an early general election?

Due to the passing of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, another LibDem manifesto promise now in law by the way, David Cameron has very little wiggle room to call an early ballot. It’s no longer the case that the Prime Minister of the day can fire the starting pistol on a whim. The pressure to do so in most circumstances would not be enough to ‘create’ circumstances in which MPs vote down their own government, as often happens in countries which have Fixed Terms. If there’s a grouplet of UKIPpers in the Commons, the constitutional consequences are hard to ignore. What government is now running the country? It’s hard enough explaining why a Coalition has legitimacy now, imagine trying to do so if near enough two dozen Tory MPs cross the floor in one swift movement?

To have any legitimacy, the MPs would have to resign their seats and force by-elections. They would have to, for UKIP is not a parliamentary party and their electors cannot just be told that it’s normal for MPs to create parliamentary groupings over a weekend that didn’t exist before. Farage may well be the man with more power than most at the moment. 

He could probably absorb Nadine Dorries trying to “do a Sarah Palin” by coming across as a strong, independent maverick woman with a voice of her own and no man ain’t gonna tell her otherwise, no way, no how. He could cope with Mark Pritchard, not exactly a household name, acting as de facto leader of the UKIP Rump State. 
But if he finds himself with 20 or more MPs under his party label sitting in the Commons as a group larger than the SNP, larger than Plaid Cymru, and in greater number than all Northern Irish parties combined, he has the sudden strength of the starting pistol no future Prime Minister can ever use. How legitimate is Project Cameron now, he’ll ask, when we’re the Party his MPs are moving to?

Cameron has been exceptionally unlucky these past few years. He failed to win an outright majority against an unpopular Labour Prime Minister who dragged the country into the longest, deepest, most damaging recession in peace times. He has struggled to shake off the image of his Cabinet as out of touch, and has had to say goodbye to close allies within his Office at the least appropriate times. He has struggled to maintain opinion poll leads against a Labour Party led by a policy-wonk with all the charisma of a Speak-n-Spell machine. 

Now Cameron has another piece of bad luck shadowing his every move. And it’s not as though he hasn’t been warned.
To lose one MP might be considered misfortune. To lose two, careless. To lose over a dozen and have a rival effectively force a General Election onto you? That, Prime Minister, is incompetence. 
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Farage fandango

Nigel Farage has enjoyed more false dawns than a customer at a transvestite holiday resort.  Third place in the Bromley and Chislehurst by-election and runner-up spot at the European Elections in 2009 pointed towards a spectacular break-through at the 2010 general election. Focusing on election in the Speaker’s constituency of Buckingham – the constituency of the sitting Speaker is nominally uncontested though every election sees a collection of independents and oddities make a contest out of it – Farage stood down as leader to be replaced by Malcolm Pearson, aka Lord Pearson of Rannoch.  I have a distinct memory of their election press conference crumbling before my very eyes, Lord Pearson struggling to hide the rather obvious fact that he hadn’t read his own manifesto.

Decked out in their garish purple and yellow party colours – which tend not to go well with mahogany tan – UK Independence Party candidates are notoriously good at talking up their chances. Under our current First Past The Post voting system, it matters not that the recent YouGov poll puts them within one point of overtaking the Liberal Democrats: no UKIP candidate will ever be elected directly to the House of Commons.

That said, it’s not as though Nigel Farage is Nick Griffin, who has seen his own British National Party collapse from height to shambles in a matter of months. Farage is the master of his party’s image and spin, and boy can the man talk. Yes, his anti-Belgium diatribes are embarrassing. His Statesman like behaviour carries all the credibility of a garden gnome. And yet…

The threat of UKIP has never been so potent as it seems to be this year. By “threat” I also mean “promise” and “aspiration”. Farage is not the captain of a sinking ship, even if the tan and fancy get up shouts “Howard’s Way”. With this month’s European Union referendum controversy still ringing in David Cameron’s ears, it’s little wonder UKIP are being talked about in terms of spoiling the party come election time 2015.

Realistically Farage has much more of a steep climb even with the EU debate so freshly served on the agendas of breakfast television programmes and commentariat sections in newspapers. Europe is the bee-hive poke which ruins every well laid out policy picnic Governments have planned since the days of Heath. There’s Cameron and Clegg in the rose garden, trying to return to the happy days of their honeymoon over barbecued halloumi and fruit juice when armies of purple and yellow ants creep up from behind. 


Whilst the Liberal Democrats have been excellent in holding back most of the excessive policies of the Conservatives since last May, the secret coalition partner stalking Downing Street has been Nigel Farage. There must be times when even the mention of the word ‘defection’ sends Cameron into a blind panic, the kind which enters the mind of a teenage boy in the middle of entertaining upon hearing the sound of footsteps outside the bedroom door. What if, what if, what if…Whilst decent showings in general elections are quite beyond UKIP under the current voting system, causing a shock in local and European elections most certainly are not, something Cameron knows all too well. Additionally, any threat of a backbench defection, even just the one, would be a heck load of urine in the punch. 

Crucially for the Conservatives, and in a broader sense pro-Europeans from all parties, is the lack of credibility on Farage’s part with regards to selling UKIP as a genuinely broad church. They have one policy – Europe – to which they return for each and every question posed. Until that problem is solved, then the polls will continue to show only one thing – where Liberal Democrats were once the party of protest for electors fed up with the mainstream parties, now stands UKIP. And as once was said of the LibDems, there’s no chance of a protest party ever getting into government. 

Lives of Others

Nick Griffin MP, anyone?

Already further down the rabbit hole than previous General Elections, this year appears to be glaring out towards us from somewhere beyond the looking glass. It’s the least predictable, most unusual campaign for generations.

And it could get awfully more weird…

The British National Party are standing candidates in more seats than at any previous election including here in Lancashire a candidate called Rosalind Gauci, who becomes the first candidate for the BNP in South Ribble since that seat’s formation. “Did she marry into the Gauci’s?” I have been asked by curious folk. I could not possibly comment.

The BNP manifesto is full of quotes no mainstream news channel would dare broadcast for fear of reprisals. Bring British is, “to belong to a special chain of unique people who have the natural law right to remain a majority in their ancestral homeland“, says their policy document. It gives the impression of these British Isles lifting from the oceans some three or four hundred years ago without a single brown or black face among the population. Or indeed the Welsh, or anyone with a passing knowledge of Gaelic. As most broad minded individuals note, the economic wellbeing of this nation is on dodgy ground enough without the sudden mass expulsion of every working immigrant or third-generation British Asian to their “home country”.

However – and this point is more true today than usual – the national opinion poll ratings showing the BNP flatlining on 3% or 4% does nothing to hide the possible (probable?) success of their leader Nick Griffin in Barking. His party is the official opposition on the Barking & Dagenham council; his main opponent is Margaret Hodge, a woman with a tarnished reputation. The mood of the country, if it is any guide to this specific seat, is of a rock solid Labour vote turning away from their party; no more certain bloc votes of the working class, for whom “New Labour” turned out to be an affront to their morals and expectations.

Griffin must be defeated. His presence in the House of Commons would be a dark day for this country’s democracy, however salient a lesson he may present to the commentariat already bruised by his MEP victory last year. For Barking he would be a disaster, encouraging division where none currently exists. It would do no good for voters to assume that a UKIP or LibDem vote would defeat him. The only person able to defeat him here is Hodge; a vote for Labour in Barking is the best advice anyone there can take.

Why Griffin is treated as a genuine threat in Barking is worth acres of analysis. All mainstream parties have failed to deal with immigration, job security, the alleged democratic deficit in England compared with Scotland and Wales. These are not points to be whispered or tip-toed around; exactly that kind of misunderstood, mishandled ‘liberalism’ has enhanced the BNP into the current, unwarranted, status of credible party.

It is worth noting that Griffin is the only possible BNP victory anywhere in the country; all other 300-odd candidates will struggle to save their deposits. A far-right Party whose Leader goes for the winnable seats? I could not possibly comment.

A few hundred miles away in deepest Buckinghamshire is the Speaker John Bercow, in a typically British struggle against former UKIP leader Nigel Farage. In the seat of Buckingham “convention” means sitting Speakers do not face any mainstream opposition. Hence Farage turning up, who knows how to attract media attention if not exactly reason to his arguments. Anyone who has witnessed his “speeches” in Brussels will acknowledge that Farage has brains and political savvy…but the 10-year old “YouTube Been Framed” clips on Russel Howard’s Good News have more lasting effect.

You may recall my attempt to cover the UKIP manifesto launch some weeks ago. The Party has not exactly made much of a serious dent in the election since. UKIP, like their distant cousins in the BNP, suffer from being a one-man band, with hundreds of foot-soldiers standing with shallow pockets and no chance of victory (or for that matter, support from the party command).

UKIP are as deluded about their place in the country’s affections as most “major minor” parties. The fact that they came second in the European Elections misses the point; the General election is not voted on in the same way: and in 2005 they managed just over 603,000 votes across the country, finishing fourth overall, just about 4 million short of the third placed LibDems.

Farage could win, of course, proving that national opinion polls mask such one-off results thanks to the unique way the nation elects its MPs. Bercow is neither a traditional shire Tory, nor the kind of MP who can walk away from the expenses scandal with his reputation unscathed. Farage – who shakes off claims about his £2million Euro expenses without being awfully convincing – could attract enough protest votes and traditional C/conservatives under the current circumstances. One MP from UKIP will not drag the country out of the EU (not a single UKIP MEP has managed that yet, despite that being thier only policy), but again, what a sign to the ‘establishment’ if the Speaker was defeated in his own back yard.

The third likely win from the “others” in this election – no, not Esther Rantzen in Luton South – is the Green Party in Brighton Pavilion. Caroline Lucas – now the sole leader of her Party following years of inexplicable “duel leadership” – has steered the Greens from mavericks to mainstream, proving that they are more than just environmental mouth-pieces.

Her victory in Brighton – now favourite with some bookies – would be more of a significant blow than either Farage or Griffin. No, her presence would not herald a sudden reversal in environmental policy in Westminster. No, one Green MP would not alter the course of the country. However, unlike BNP and UKIP, no mainstream media coverage has ever frothed at the mouth whenever their name is mentioned. No breathless coverage a la Griffin whenever Lucas appears on Question Time.

Are the Greens more likely to be elected elsewhere, unlike the one-man-bands of the “others” ? It’s not likely at all, such is the problem of having so little resources, so much faith in the once in a lifetime chance of our electoral processes. Green policies are not without their faults – the total cost to ordinary people has not been worked out at all. It is refreshing to think that our perverse, unfair voting system could yet suffer a minor flesh wound.

It is worth noting that this 2010 election has broken all records – more candidates than ever before, more registered Parties, more “independents”. Despite everything thrown at the election from the duck houses of Westminster, democracy in this country appears more alive and compelling than ever. The Leaders Debates have changed the face of the election campaigns for ever. Now all this event needs is some guests. There is no truth in the lazy observation “they’re all the same”. Voting in 2010 really isn’t an optional extra among the hours of your lazy Thursday, I would be awfully pleased if you went out and did so…