From Clegg to Clacton

Douglas CarswellThe other night I was driving home (I had a long drive from Diss, Norfolk to west London, which takes three hours by any reasonable route in an 18-tonne lorry) and listening to reports on Nick Clegg’s speech at the (now forgotten, I think) Lib Dem party conference. In that speech, he told everyone off for looking for someone to blame for the current crisis, be it big business, immigrants or Europe. He also reminded everyone how he’d toned down the Tories’ worst instincts during his four years cosying up to them, and promised that he’d never repeat the mistake of caving in on increasing student tuition fees. Then on Friday morning, we woke to find that UKIP had gained the seat of Clacton in Essex in a by-election in which the sitting (former Tory) MP, Douglas Carswell (right), had defected and put himself up for re-election. In a 51% turnout, Carswell won 60% of the vote, more than double the nearest rival (a Conservative). In another by-election in Heywood and Middleton in Greater Manchester, Labour held the seat and increased its share of the vote by 1%, but UKIP came second with only about 600 fewer votes.

To deal with the Lib Dem conference first, Clegg and other Lib Dems are deluding themselves if they think his voters’ sense of betrayal is purely down to the tuition fees issue. He caved in on so many other issues, including the Tories’ welfare reform programme and the cuts to legal aid, which leave some very vulnerable people without legal representation (e.g. mothers trying to secure custody of their children, when their husbands often have better ability to afford a lawyer). Last Monday (before the speech), Sue Marsh posted an entry in which she described Clegg and Danny Alexander at the time of the formation of the coalition as “eager as 6th formers convinced they are ready to play men’s games”, and this sums up my impression of why they gave so much away: they were just too eager for the privileges and prestige of “office”. Nor can it be said that they have tempered the Conservatives’ wilder instincts as these elements are snapping at the leadership’s heels as we speak. They have an established group within the party that wants to take Britain out of the EU and the European Convention on Human Rights; some of them are defecting to UKIP and their press are egging both groups on. They did not accept a coalition and blame the Lib Dems for everything that they were unable to do if they had been a “Tory government”, apparently ignorant of the fact that they did not, in fact, win the election. The Lib Dems have not gained as a party from coalition with the Tories; only their ministers have gained, and only personally. Their values are treated as if they are on the fringes of current thinking, with the two major parties (and there are only two now, and if there is a third, it is not the Lib Dems) competing to be ‘tough’ on right-wing media issues such as immigration and Europe.

That the Lib Dem vote has collapsed is evident from both of last week’s by-elections: in Clacton, they received only 483 votes, a loss of 12%, and lost their deposit, coming fifth after the Greens; in Heywood and Middleton, they lost 18% of the vote and received only 1,457, coming fourth. While the Clacton result can be explained partly by there being a popular local MP who would have won whichever party he represented, in Heywood the Labour party gained only 1% of the vote while UKIP gained 36%. I’ve seen blog posts and a diagram (since deleted, it seems) suggesting that this was not hugely significant because Labour held its vote while the Tories’ and Lib Dems’ votes were transferred to UKIP. The problem is that the Lib Dems appealed to an entirely different demographic to UKIP, which expects to take votes from people who are swayed by the right-wing press rather than progressive, well-educated voters who actually think about what they are voting for. The Lib Dems also benefited from a large number of left-wing votes during the New Labour era, and from left-wing voters in mostly affluent areas where they were the main opposition to the Tories. It is inconceivable that these voters will vote UKIP in large numbers. The only possible explanation is that Labour (and the Tories) lost voters to UKIP while gaining them from the Lib Dems (although the Greens, who also increased their share of the vote in Heywood, may have gained from both). A possible reason why UKIP gained such a large share of the vote was the low turnout, which demonstrates the danger of not turning out to vote because you believe you live in a ‘safe’ seat and because it’s “only a by-election”.

The success of UKIP also shows that being wealthy and having a background in the financial sector is no bar to winning votes among impoverished and poorly-educated voters. In theory, it shouldn’t be, on its own, but Farage, like a lot of American right-wing politicians, affects a ‘common touch’ that disguises policies that benefit only his own class, while exploiting people’s fears and resentments, however ill-founded they may be. Thomas Frank exposed this tendency in American politics in his book What’s the Matter with Kansas? (America, in the UK version): that white voters across the USA, except in the big cities, the university towns and coastal metropolitan areas, had taken to voting for Republican candidates whose economic policies were against their interests, largely for reasons of morality (e.g., opposition to abortion) or because it was not acceptable to draw attention to their wealth and background; that was the “politics of envy” and wealthy men are winners. The same rhetoric can be seen creeping into British politics, along with the same dishonesty, the same fake common touch, the blunt talking, the hostility to experts and intellectuals. The deception is perpetrated on the BBC and in papers which are meant to be a bit more balanced: the Observer, for example, portrayed him taking a beer (a common theme in the American version of this deceit as well - they can’t be shown sipping a latte) in his “village pub in Kent” when it was actually in an exclusive and expensive London suburb.

I’ve found the media’s coverage of these by-elections disappointing, but perhaps I shouldn’t as they have been talking up UKIP for years. On Friday morning I followed a link which appeared to be to a story about the Heywood result, but it turned out to be mostly about Clacton and contain mostly chatter by various politicians, as if that was the news. There were no statistics — no tables of the candidates and their votes and percentages, nor of the changes since 2010 (after I complained to the BBC myself, graphs showing these details appeared). This result is disturbing: it’s a victory for apathy, unthinkingness, fear and resentment, stoked by the commercial right-wing press and recklessly fed by the BBC, and is in no way comparable to the “protest votes” cast while the Liberal Democrats seemed the only principled party during the New Labour era (let alone to tactical votes for the Lib Dems cast in constituencies where Labour could not win). It used to be said that people vote with their pockets, hence the recurrent victories for the Tories in the 1980s and 90s, but now it seems people will vote against their interests on the vague notion that a party “says what they are thinking” or “are on their side”, even though a cursory investigation will prove that they are in fact firmly part of the establishment and playing a trick. The BNP were brought to earth when their incompetence, lies and criminality were exposed; will anyone expose the deceptions of UKIP? Or do people just not care?

Image source: Wikipedia.

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