Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Hopeful halfway point

Since a friend told me that British politics is double-Dutch to people sensible enough to belong to other countries, I should start by explaining the context to this post.

Rousseau once said that Englishmen – by which I suspect he meant the British – are free for one day every five years. There’s some truth in that: every five years, we exercise our right to elect a superlative government, and then spend the next five years seething impotently as we watch the desperate doings of a government superlative only in its incompetence.

This is a contrast to the US system which elects a president from one party and a congress from another, ensuring that nothing gets done at all. I’m not convinced that this is any the less exasperating, but it’s certainly different.

In between votes, 
and were half way through our current parliament with elections due in May 2015, the only time we can administer well-deserved correction to our politicians is at by-elections. These can be triggered by various developments such as a Member of Parliament going off to higher things, or at least more highly-paid ones, or simply dying in office. 

The latter is naturally an event always greeted with widespread and heartfelt grieving, because we always mourn dead politicians. It’s as though the grave converts them from infuriating delinquents whose corruption is only matched by their depravity, into towering figures of statesmanlike virtue. ‘Never shall we see their like again’ we’re regularly told, which always seems odd to me, since I generally find them more or less indistinguishable from the guys who step into their shoes.

Last week we had three by-elections. Two of them were caused by Labour Members of Parliament standing down to go and run for election as Police and Crime Commissioners, positions at the head of local police forces for which no-one wanted elections (they’ve achieved new records for abstention in national polls: well under one person in five bothered to vote at all).

My biggest concern with these new positions is whether they’re about police or about crime. If the latter, then the offence has to be a fraud against electors, designed to convince them that this apparent extension of democracy, compensates for the fact that spending cuts have reduced the number of police actually out there stopping crime.

Both by-elections in the safe Labour seats returned new Labour MPs with comfortable majorities, though on low turnouts.

The third by-election was caused by the resignation of the Conservative Louise Mensch from the bellwether seat of Corby. Really, Corby is like Ohio for US presidential races: no government gets elected without Corby, and none ever 
has since the seat was created.

Mensch resigned after just two years in parliament, a position most people would find an extraordinary honour to hold. She, however, recently married the manager of Metallica, based in New York and then decided that she had to go and join him and therefore resign the mandate she’d asked for from her electors.

The Conservative Party likes to sing the praises of qualities like perseverance, loyalty and self-sacrifice, but generally demands them of those, like the poor, it’s sacrificing on the altar of wealth preservation. With its own, it tends to be rather more indulgent. So it's not that surprising that it said little in criticism of Mensch; the voters of Corby, on the other hand, showed their disapproval by giving the Labour candidate a large majority to replace her as MP. The bellwether constituency has just been lost by the government.

What’s even more interesting is that the proportions of the vote won by the major parties in all three seats were very much in line with the opinion polls, which show Labour 10 points clear.

Cameron looking concerned. As well he should be.

So – even if British politics remain as much double-Dutch as they were before I started this outline, there’s just one simple message from last week: half-way through the present parliament, the odds have to be against the present government getting a second one.

That isn't a prospect that leaves me particularly upset.

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