Friday, 21 November 2014

Lessons Of Rochester

On the basis of the numbers, UKIP are bound to lose Rochester at the General Election. They had a majority of only 3,000. The turnout was only 51%, which means that with a normal general election turnout of 70% plus, there are another 20,000 votes to be had. That is not only enough votes for the Tories to win the seat back, but it is enough votes for Labour to win the seat, with a 10,000 majority!

Its unlikely that in a General Election all of the UKIP votes would stay with them. Some of those votes will be disgruntled Tories, who have stuck with their sitting MP, but who will return to the Tory fold come the real election in 6 months time. There are numerous instances of such turnarounds. One of the examples always given to politics students is that of 1970's rising Labour MP Dick Taverne, who stood as an independent, because he thought Labour was moving too far Left.

Taverne had risen quickly in the ranks of the Wilson Governments of the 1960's, serving as a Home Office Minister and Financial Secretary to the Treasury. He fell out with his Lincoln CLP, and set up the Democratic Labour Association, under whose banner he contested the seat in a by-election in March 1973. He won the seat, and even managed to retain it in the General Election of February 1974, but at the October 1974 general election, he was thrown out. Despite all the media hype about the breaking of the mould of British politics, we've seen it all before – at least those of us older than 40 have.

Taverne was an outrider for the SDP, which split from Labour in 1981, and which he joined. They too, in the guise of the “Gang of Four” of Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins, William Rodgers, and David Owen, had some sizeable by-election wins. But, in the blink of an eye, they were gone, merged with the Liberals into the Liberal Democrats. Remember them?

They were the outfit, who rather like UKIP were scrupulous about having no scruples when it came to opportunist politics, dropping policies like hot potatoes if they thought they might lose them votes, and pushing one policy in one constituency to gain votes, whilst arguing its direct opposite in another constituency, where it was seen to be electorally advantageous. They too were the outfit who were set to break the mould.

As recently as 2010, the media were orgasmic in their fawning over Nick Clegg, just as they have been over Nigel Farage. Farago was preceded by Cleggmania. They once all wanted to “agree with Nick”. Now Nick's bunch have lost their lustre, for the media. In Rochester, they could barely beat a dominatrix standing as an independent candidate. The Liberals have been reduced to a level where they have no more political significance than the SWP, or one of the other irrelevant sects. No wonder the media are scraping around trying to find the new story that will break the mould. Even UKIP seems to be becoming a bit stale for them, and their sights are shifting towards the Greens, and the SNP.

Some of UKIP's vote may have come from Labour, as tactical voting, with Labour voters voting UKIP to defeat the Tories. But, its also likely that the drop in Labour's share of the vote, is itself simply an indication of the fact that 20,000 voters who would normally vote in a general election, didn't bother in this by-election. Labour was not likely to win, so why bother. At a general Election, that is less likely to be the case. The General Election, whatever the media hype, and Farage's bluster will be between Labour and Tories, even the distraction of the Liberals has now been removed as their rotting corpse has been put firmly under ground. Under those conditions, the Labour voters will turn out, and any who had voted for UKIP will quickly return.

That is the other lesson. In the last three big by-elections, two were in Tory seats, and they lost both of them to UKIP, the third, in Middleton was in a Labour seat, and Labour held it comfortably. Despite all the media hype, Labour held Middleton, in the face of the Tory and Liberal vote collapsing to UKIP. Again the turnout was low, and in a general election, Labour's majority in the seat will be back at least to where it was at the last general election. UKIP continues to be a right-wing split from the Tories, just as the SDP were a right-wing split from Labour in the 1980's.

UKIP will no more break the mould of British politics than the SDP did, but like the SDP undermined the Labour vote, allowing the Tories in, in the 1980's, so UKIP will split the Tory vote next year.

The other lesson from Rochester is that MP's should ditch Twitter. The Internet is in general prone to encouraging people to say things they would not if they were saying them in public. That is why there are so many trolls out there. But, even for people writing things with the best of intentions, its easy for words to be misinterpreted, let alone misrepresented, unless and even if, you write reams of clarification. That is because no one can hear your tone of voice, or see your facial expression, which are vital parts of non verbal communication. Its one reason I never use Twitter, and why I've never understood why anyone would want to. The risk of saying something stupid, unintended, or just open to being misrepresented in an instantaneous tweet is simply to great.

Having said that, I'm a bit non-plussed about what all the fuss is about over Emily Thornberry's tweet. The main thing I take away from it, is what it says about the Westminster elite for whom the sight of England flags hanging from windows is “extraordinary”. For most of us, such a sight is not at all unusual. But, does the fact that its not unusual change the other underlying sentiment. On the estates where I have lived, there was nothing unusual about seeing such flags, but nor was it the case that every house was decked out with them. It was also not unusual to see houses groaning under the weight of Christmas lights and decorations, sometimes from as early as October.

But its equally true that most of the people who lived on those estates, not snobs, but ordinary hard working people, themselves saw the flags and the overdone decorations as a bit lowering of the tone. The trouble is that the Parliamentary Labour Party has become so stuffed full middle class professional politicos that they are susceptible to the charge of snobbery. A Dennis Skinner, or an Eric Heffer could have got away with Thornberry's tweet without any problem, because it would have simply been an example of what can be seen every day, of ordinary workers being prepared to poke fun at themselves, and the idiosyncrasies of some of their number.

But at also reflects something else. We don't know what the politics are of the person whose house was pictured in Thornberry's tweet. We don't know whether they were a UKIP voter or a voter for the “People Before Profit” candidate. We do know that the profile of UKIP voters, like the profile of BNP voters in the past, is one of people who hold some pretty reactionary ideas, and who may well be a part of that social strata that Marx described as the lumpenproletariat. The kind of picture often created that such elements represent the working-class is dangerous, because the other side of this, is to present a picture whereby the real working-class is then thought of as being the middle-class, rather as is done in the United States.

Those elements of these lower strata have never been the ones that have formed the back bone of the labour movement. On the contrary they have always been the ones used as a driving ram of reaction against it. The equation of poverty and socialist radicalism is a false one, and a dangerous one. When Labour MP, Chris Bryant, appeared on BBC News, therefore, and complained about Thornberry's tweet that “we should respect the voters”, he was completely wrong.

The idea of respecting the voters is one that electoralist parties must adopt, because for them politics is a commodity to be sold. They are only interested in winning as many votes as possible, so as to get elected, and necessarily that means elected on almost any basis. Such parties have to show respect to the voters, no matter how reactionary the views of those voters, no matter how ludicrous or unintelligent the views of those voters, for fear of upsetting them, and losing their vote. But how patronising to those voters is such an attitude?

The Labour Party should not respect the views of racists, and other bigots. They had no problem, in fact, in supporting the decision of the Home Secretary in banning such a person from entering the country last week. It doesn't mean we have to treat everyone with racist or bigoted views as being the same as a hard core fascist, but it does mean we have to tackle the reactionary ideas they have, and not simply pussy foot around the issue. But, that again reflects the problem that the Parliamentary Labour Party has with its social composition, and with trying to pander to liberal sentiments on the one hand without alienating workers scared of being left behind on the other. It is what has left Labour policy on immigration in a total mess for the last 50 years.

Labour should argue clearly against all immigration controls, but to do so would mean also arguing for policies that really tackle the problems of insufficient decent jobs, of lack of security, or inadequate housing provision, inadequate educational and health provision etc. You can't do that whilst simultaneously agreeing with the Tories on the need for policies of austerity. Those are also lessons Labour needs to learn from Rochester.

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