Friday, 1 March 2013

Eastleigh: the lesson is there's nothing to learn

The first lesson to learn from by-elections is that there aren’t any lessons to learn from by-elections.

They take place in a single constituency out of the 650 that send members to the British House of Commons. Because only a single seat is at stake, voters feel free to express anger and indignation at the established parties by registering a protest vote for one of the minor ones, which they wouldn’t go near if it was likely to affect the choice of a government.

By-elections take place when something unfortunate happens to an MP, like he dies or has to resign for fiddling his expenses or is waiting to start an extended spell in gaol. It was the latter that caused yesterday’s by-election in Eastleigh: the former incumbent had his then-wife take the blame for a speeding fine to get him out of trouble; he then got right up her nose by leaving her for a younger woman; she denounced him and he’s now waiting to be sentenced; meanwhile she’s still facing trial for her own part in the sorry story because, after all, when she denounced him she rather set herself up too, as his accomplice.

In the circumstances, you might have expected the former MP’s party, the Liberal Democrats, to lose the seat. Particularly since by joining a coalition with the Conservatives, they’ve let down their supporters, most of whom saw them as a way of opposing the nasty party without actually voting Labour.

So turn-up for the books number 1 was that the Lib Dems held the seat. Their vote collapsed over 14% but they hung on.
Mike Thornton, victor of Eastleigh, with his wifeLet's hope she takes the fall for anything he did 

Labour achieved what sounds like a miserable result, coming a distant fourth, but surprisingly their share of the vote didn’t fall at all. In an election where Labour was never really in the running, it’s an indifferent result, neither one thing or another.

The really bad performance was the Conservatives’, with a drop almost as big as registered by the Lib Dems, and forced into third place.

And the worst of it? They were humiliated by a bunch that deserves the title ‘nasty party’ even more than they do. Homophobic, xenophobic and probably hydrophobic, the so-called United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) is cashing in on the fear of the outsider that emerges most strongly whenever the economic going gets tough. They are the leading anti-immigration group. The nice thing about being anti-immigration is you can indulge all sorts of racist thinking without actually saying anything actionably racist.

The really sad thing for David Cameron is that recently he’s been trying to make the Tories much nastier still, turning their rather ineffective guns against the European Union and sacrificing any credibility they had in its leading circles, but to no avail: the really nasty UKIP was more than a match for the would-be-still-nastier Tories.

The joke is that though UKIP did so well in Eastleigh, it really was only a by-election, where people could safely protest with no danger of doing any lasting damage. Polls today already suggest that many UKIP voters would come back to the Tories, or even the other parties, at a general election.

Still, in a race to the bottom with UKIP, the Tories have the advantage of not just being nasty externally. If anything they’re even nastier with their own. And they clearly haven’t learned the lesson that by-elections teach no lessons. For instance, the senior MP Eleanor Laing, speaking for the right wing of the Conservative Party, has already come out against Cameron, her leader.

‘The leadership of the party isn't tuning in to the hopes and fears of the vast majority of ordinary people out there in Britain today,’ she said today, a sentiment I entirely agree with, but then I want him and her and the rest of her party a long way from power anyway. That means I only admire all the more the deadly way in which Laing inserts the stiletto into her leader’s back. After all, by stirring up divisions within the party, she only makes it more likely that we’ll see the back of it in 2015.

So – no lessons to learn from by-elections. Except perhaps that those that don’t realise there’s nothing to be learned from them, can really dig themselves a deep, deep hole by reacting to the results as though they mattered.

It’s fun to be able to sit on the sidelines and watch that happen to all those fine people in our grand old traditional nasty party.

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