Bad days at the electoral office

Back at the faroff long-agos, the BBC would take up by-election reporting with gusto, putting Dimbles and Peter Snow in a room with two MPs hoiked against their will from the escalators at Hammersmith Tube for an evening of chat and analysis. The fondest held memory is Snow taking the 60% vote share of a comfortable victory and, “just for fun”, extrapolating how the country would vote were that the norm across the land. And with that, the credits would roll and they would all sink off to whichever club BBC personalities went to in the 1980s with….Well, I don’t think this sort of innuendo is allowed anymore, is it?

Anyway, the Beeb prefer to show repeats of “Hardtalk” and dual-broadcasts with BBC World Service nowadays, so amateur psephologist types do the analysis themselves across the nerdier parts of the Internet, across messageboards, chatrooms and invariably Twitter. It saves on paying Peter Snow to walk through greenscreen rooms pretending to stomp over the Home Counties like a gentleman Godzilla, doesn’t it?

These versions of the art of chin-stroking by-election results aren’t exactly neutral, but at the best of times parliamentary by-elections are crap shoots from which comfort is garnered from whoever wants garnering. On that turn of the sixpence, here’s my take on November’s democrogry.

Manchester Central

That sticky out bit is Moston, which would stretch the definition of both “Manchester” and “central”, if you were looking at the map for the first time. Maybe that’s number 101 in the top 100 reasons for the plummet in turnout, people not being aware that “Manchester Central” referred to the whole council area, not just the glass-and-chrome city centre?

Okay, so actually the record breaking turnout, for all the wrong reasons, has more in keeping with ‘central’ constituencies having a tendency to do this, such as Liverpool’s Riverside and Leeds’ Central, where Hilary “son of Tony” Benn was elected on a barely respectable 19%. It’s worth remembering that Manchester Central had the lowest turnout of all the constituencies which fought at the general election. Any such disinterest/apathy is worrying, for it opens the door to extremists and complacency, but it’s as much a right to turn up as it is not to, and the good folk of Manchester know how to make themselves heard when they need to. Incidentally, this was the lowest turnout in peace-time, with the war-affected Poplar by-election of 1942 registering exactly half that which came out here. As wise men often say, makes you think.

Let’s deal with what we need to deal with first. Didn’t Respect do terribly? Only 1% of the vote and beaten by Pirates. In what will be a notice we return to later, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition performed particularly badly, but with less name recognition than Respect (George Galloway), it’s surprising to see them score so highly here. By the way, in 2010, the Manchester ballot paper gave voters the choice of Socialist Labour, Socialist Equality or Workers Revolutionary, and they all lost their deposits too. Maybe there’s not that much of a lefty streak here after all? Unless there’s too much lefty choice to go round, obvz. (Surely not?)

Yes, Ed Miliband’s bag carrier Lucy Powell won handsomely. There was no betting shop this side of the moon who thought it otherwise, though the sharp increase in vote shows a real kickback after the Cleggmania surge of two years previously. The Liberal Democrat slump has been well reported and recorded. Yes, it’s a record drop, the furthest drop since the party was formed in the year 1988 and by most measures amongst the worst “Liberal” performance for generations. Reasons? There’s plenty. We’re the party of protest now being protested against, for one thing, and at times of economic uncertainty there will always be targets. Note how the Conservatives fell from over 4,700 votes to 754, just as much a poke in the eye as they’d ever get in Manchester. They remain without a single councillor at Manchester Town Hall.

This is the only by-election of the six not to see UKIP save its deposit, a point which has been swept aside by the wave of relative success they were to have elsewhere. The increase of 3% put them almost above the Conservatives, which I guess is what you might call a clue in a narrative arc.

Cardiff South and Penarth
The word here was “yawn”. Or the Welsh translation. Google suggests “dylyfu”.

Here in the southern swathe of the Welsh capital, refurbished and regenerated beyond recognition, attached to one of the few Conservative certainties in South East Wales. The result when it came was pretty much ‘as was’, a sort of holding pattern rather than a result. Labour held on, vote going up by 8.4, whilst the Conservatives fell back by the same measure. This widening gap between the top two wasn’t particularly odd on the day, even within the context of highly unpopular PCC elections. There was a steep drop for the Liberal Democrats, again par of the course, although the 10% vote share is a highly resilient figure going forward.

Both Plaid and UKIP moved forward, the latter saving one of their five deposits, making a good case for themselves in a seat which they gained only 2.6% at the election. The Plaid result should be seen in the context of the Welsh Assembly, perhaps as an indication of how different devolution has treated the nationalist parties. The surge enjoyed here retained the deposit they lost two years previously, a mark of how un-nationalist Cardiff is compared with the places across the North where the party speaks its language – literally – to much greater effect.

The only other thing to note in this quiet election is the Communist candidate gaining seventeen – count them – votes from his bottom place two years previously. 
What do we deal with first – Louise Mensch or Mr Mozzarella?

Remember when David Davies had a rush of ambition to the rectum, flouncing off to stand in Haltenmprice and Howden as a make-pretend Liberal Democrat? Well looky-here. Corby became the next location for an unnecessary by-election, and with it came a host of jokers and knaves to bother the printing presses (which is good for Corby, where the trouser press has been in good use for some time).

Let’s start at the bottom up, shall we?  The United People’s Party landed rock bottom last, under a party formed by the former editor of the Independent as a group created to re-examine what democracy means in the 21st century. It managed thirty-five votes, which is about a third less than David Bishop managed, standing for “Elvis Loves Pets”. I think we can draw our own conclusions, here, can’t we children?

The map above should give you a clue as to why Corby tends to go with whoever ends up winning the election. The blob at the north-west is Corby itself, all industrial and manufacturing and vaguely Scottish. The great swathe of otherness is East Northamptonshire, all tiny villages and handful-shized towns where people work every hour God sends to prepare for an appearance on Masterchef Professionals.  Lots of gastropubs in the rurals you know, why do you think Mr Mozzarella of the Just Eat franchise stood here?

Actually, why *did* he stand here? I don’t think he had any choice, like those page 3 girls who stood as “Miss Great Britain Party” candidates a few years ago in Britain’s most worrying brush with exploitation-as-democracy in some time. Anyhoo, there’s no surprise that the squashed up blob of Corby tends to outvote the rural expanse at times when Labour are on the rise, and the Conservatives do the reverse all other times. Point in fact – the Tories won here in 1992 with 44.5% of the vote in a 4-pronged race; Louise Mensch managed 42.2% under the same circumstances ballot paper wise in 2010. Give Labour over a dozen of candidates and what happens – nearly half of the votes cast, and that’s without anyone misunderstanding how to use AV.

The unfortunate loss of the LibDems deposit was by the very slimmest of margins. The party needed only 10 more votes to be absolute sure of keeping the £500, losing as they did by scoring 4.96% of the vote, not enough to keep the money. If there’s anything to like about the Corby result, it’s  the BNP result, something we should mention now in case I forget. Who loses when voters go to the polls for no good reason in the middle of an economic thunderstorm? Not the far-right, who fell back 3 points here to just 1.7, a collapse in real terms from 2,525 votes in 2010 to only 614 this month. By any measure, that’s a complete collapse, and it couldn’t possibly happen to a nicer bunch of people.
Lessons learned? That “the road to Downing Street runs through Corby” isn’t that bad a slogan, as it goes, and clearly the Conservatives are not safe in the semi-rurals after two years of trying to sound like it. With the narrative arc in full flow, notice how UKIP (2010 result – n/a) finished with over 5,000 votes, which isn’t bad from a standing start, unless your a Conservative in similar bellwether seats chewing your nails. 
A point about the Greens, while we’re at it. There is a place in British politics for a Green Party, though it doesn’t seem to fit that they have a place within British politics outside Brighton. Unless they have deeper pockets than we all realise, how can they afford so many terrible results across the country, even in the bizzarro-world of by-elections?
Croydon North
London elections are a bit special, let’s get that out of the way. With the assumption that all the media and its dogs prefer London to anywhere else in the country, more candidates stand in London elections on average than anywhere else in the country. It’s not just a population thing, London attracts candidates because the London-based media is attracted to places it can travel to on a single flash of their Oyster cards and expenses forms.

To show this in full colour, Croydon North attracted Simon Lane (“nine eleven was an inside job, and also capital letters are symbols of the illumniati”), Lee Jasper, Winston McKenzie and a Conservative with cerebral palsy who chose charity work over massive research job salary packets. So bonkers, all told, and that’s without mentioning that there was an official Monster Raving Loony candidate, whose website proudly declares him to be pro-cuts, pro-Coalition, and pro-Prince Harry.

Dealing with the LibDem collapse first, then, and here it was only then 10 percentage points, and a lost deposit. Not good, though I’m  not one of the voices wailing into my FOCUS newsletters. Our candidate has a proven record elsewhere in London and was a refreshing voice on the one phone-in I heard via Croydon’s community radio station. She was also, by the by, the only woman on the ballot paper, something of a surprise in London. Is Croydon statistically more male than any other London Borough? Or is a call from Julia Gillard needed?

Here’s the thing. It’s not Marisha Ray’s fault that her vote collapsed, or that the number of LibDem voters fell from over 7,000 to under 900. This was a very odd election, in a very odd part of the country, where by-elections always attract mammoth ballot papers. This election had Winston McKenzie and Lee Jasper fighting it out for attention and ego points, and when both have reason to go after Labour’s candidate from different angles, there’s going to be a squeeze. That squeeze came on us, and whilst I accept we have our part to play in explaining or justifying the Coalition’s record, I can’t see this result or others on the same day being some form of coordinated punishment. There was a lot of issues, direct and otherwise, coming down on Croydon in the run-up to the election and it shows in the vote changes of other parties, not just us.

Let’s look at UKIP, who didn’t soar as they did elsewhere. From 891 votes to 1,400 in one leap is hardly a measure of success, even with a high profile and provocative candidate. Winston McKenzie has already switched party to party to party before, even standing as a Veritas candidate at one point, and this doesn’t help his credibility very much. The gay outburst (that is, an outburst about gays, not an outburst which was a bit camp) probably bruised liberals more than it did his election chances, if we’re honest. All the same, it’s an indication that UKIP hasn’t got it right in London.

The Labour surge is impressive. It’s a marked up-shot, adding eight percentage points onto an already commanding lead. The significant drop in Conservative share can’t be just ‘a UKIP thing’, so there has to be something in the movement between Labour and LibDem votes. I can’t see much leakage going to the minority candidates, especially not from the Conservatives – notice how the National Front only managed 161, about the same number of votes in a single block of flats. I’ve not seen anybody question whether Andrew Stranack was somehow abandoned by voters because of his disability, and indeed few people brought up Steve Reed’s sexuality, so maybe there are reasons to be cheerful. Here, as in Corby, the Greens struggled in a crowded field.

Let’s go back to the TUSC lot, for the start. In times of economic hardship and disquiet with the ruling government, where do people go? The opposition, yes, but one kind? In my lifetime protest movements seemed to rely on the fringes, and indeed the anti-war movement could only survive with help from the non-aligned movement who were aided and assisted by the left and hard-left. Stop the War and associated protest groups were founded and moulded by the socialist groups who had been sent to the margins in between moments of greatest unrest.

For whatever reason, and there’s  bound to be plenty, the TUSC grouping of left/hard-left groups just hasn’t made itself known to a wide audience. In a seat like Rotherham, in a time like ours, to gain so little is not good at all. It’s plain embarrassing, and I say that as a LibDem about to talk on our 8th place.

The protest votes for the whole went into three directions – UKIP, BNP and Respect. I’m not going to lie here, I don’t think UKIP are fascists in suits or knuckle draggers. They’re not fruitcakes, or loonies or whatever David Cameron called them. What UKIP is made up of, mostly, is disgruntled people, and disgruntled people without a clear direction of travel. Under Nigel Farage, they’ve become a party of Europe not wanting to be in Europe, turning up to claim expenses without putting in any work. In the UK, they are political pygmies, without a single elected Councillor, without a single elected MP, without a single elected anybody. Using the old BNP trick of co-option onto tiny minute parish councils, UKIP can claim to have some kind of representation outside Brussels, but this doesn’t wash with most folk who know their onions and their bendy bananas.

What UKIP actually want, or how they managed to get 22% of the vote here without explaining anything, is the real question. The adoption scandal broke with exceptionally good timing.  It was used to get sympathy for both the parents, and the candidate. Why the lack of success? Jane Collins is not George Galloway, and Rotherham is not Bradford. Crucially, perhaps, Nigel Farage is not Galloway either. There’s a lot of bom, but not enough bast. Whilst George can speak with passion and target that passion to something relevant (usually the Labour Party), Nigel is too eager to use “Europe” as a codeword for anything and everything, and it will put off swing voters. “Europe” as a catch-all is not a popular electoral subject, as many polls have shown, and people are not made more popular by talking about it again and again and again.

So, then, the Liberal Democrats. What do we blame? That our candidate was a bloke with a ponytail? Well, it might be a reason, keep hold of it. Again, I’m not going to wear a black cap here and call time on us all. This was a bonkers byelection even by most standards of these things. We had the adoption case, Labour’s controversial stitch-up/selection, high profile Yvonne Wilson, and a candidate called Clint who came with backing from the English Defence League. We would always find high profile elections like this hard, moreso in government. We suffered a lot, in many ways more than we did in Manchester. In fact the 2.1% we ‘gained’ here is the worst result, of any mainstream party, in any by-election in recorded history for a mainland constituency. What I am certain of is that this was just a kick in the shins as part of a very complex and unpredictable election. We’re not going to be srtuffed like this again.

It’s notable that the BNP, whilst saving a deposit, which is very rare for them (only 4 ever in their history), it came with a short drop in the share of the vote. Clearly they are not attracting votes like they used to, and should no longer be the bogeymen of British politics. Using the BNP as some kind of scare tactic is nonsense when they’re clearly so unpopular, toothless and broke. Look at the figures – UKIP at over 4,600 votes from 2,220, whilst BNP slipped from 3,906 to 1,804. That is a party in decline, here and in Manchester and elsewhere, and there wasn’t many elsewheres for a group with such little money. If this month has shown the death of anything, it’s the demise of the BNP.


Give Peace a chance.

By-elections are theatre. Nobody knows who will turn up to stand, or to vote, and as such there’s no real guarantee that the result will marry up with the opinion polls of the day. This is why Peter Snow was so funny in going “just for fun” when taking the election result from one constituency across the country. There’s no such thing as uniform behaviour, much less uniform swing.

Here in Middlesbrough the election seemed to carry out its business without much publicity. Croydon had big names in Lee and Winston and Rotherham had scandal, walk-outs and Yvonne Ridley. So away from all that, the ‘Boro just had candidates standing for election without the media taking much notice.

The result was another disaster for TuSC, who claim to speak for the working class, and BNP, who do the same with a different accent. Neither showed much chance of a break through, less so the BNP who lost 4 percentage points to lose over 1,600 votes in real terms.

The success of Labour needs framing in context, too. Sir Stuart Bell didn’t hold a single constituency surgery for years following an physical attack, which attracted criticism all the same for being dismissive of his constituents. It’s not for nothing that the winning candidate saw his vote share climb from under 50% to above 60%. Voters do notice this sort of thing, you know.

A saved deposit for the LibDems may seem out of the storyline somewhat, although it’s worth remembering that the candidate and his team were behind the success in Redcar next-door. Good campaigners show their mark in many ways, not least a saved deposit and a better overall result than the Conservatives.

And then we get to Imdad Hussain and the Peace Party. No, me neither. Indeed, nobody really knew who this former Labour councillor was until the results were announced. Any clues? Well he was embroiled in a bit of a scandal and defected, although why he went here rather than Respect is anyone’s guess. What we do have is a nice electoral quirk to finish up with – the first time that the Peace Party had saved a deposit, a slice of the unpredictable nature of this business we call politics.

Just for fun, you understand, we ran these results through a super computer, and do you know what it said? Wait until 2015, when the votes really mean something.