The by-election that nobody won
Yes, the Tories came first – largely by default – but the only real victor in last week’s Norwich North by-election was anti-politics.
Last Thursday’s by-election in Norwich North, England, provided an eye-wateringly detailed insight into the demise of Britain’s ruling Labour Party.
Having been represented by Labour MPs for 45 out of the past 60 years, it was announced on Friday that Norwich North had become Tory territory: Labour’s vote fell by an extraordinary 26.7 per cent, as the 27-year-old Tory candidate, Chloe Smith, won the election with 7,348 votes more than the Labour candidate, Chris Ostrowski. Following the local and European elections in June – in which Labour won support from a tiny five to 7.5 per cent of the whole British electorate – it is now clear that the British public has little, if any, belief in Gordon Brown’s government or the Labour machine (1).
However, while Norwich North was a nightmare for Labour, it was also not a clear-cut victory for the Conservatives, far less for any discernible Conservative policies. And it exposed the utter inability of the Liberal Democrats or the Greens – so often described as the not-too-mainstream parties that might benefit from Labour’s woes – to enthuse the public or pick up significant numbers of votes even in a period of widespread disillusionment with the government. Indeed, it’s not going too far to say that no party really won in Norwich North; it was a victory mainly for top-down anti-politics and elite cynicism. In this sense, the by-election provided a snapshot of what we might expect to see in the forthcoming General Election – unless we do something about it.
The main story of the by-election was the further corrosion of Labour. The election was a metaphor for the self-destructive tendencies and sickness at the heart of the ruling party. Firstly, the election was effectively brought about by Labour itself: in its keenness to be seen to be acting on the MPs’ expenses scandal, Labour’s disciplinary committee informed Ian Gibson, Labour MP for Norwich North since 1997, that he was barred from standing for Labour in the next General Election; Gibson had been exposed by the Daily Telegraph for claiming expenses on a flat in which his daughter lived rent-free (2). Infuriated by the committee’s decision, Gibson resigned, thus forcing a by-election. Symbolically, Labour’s replacement candidate, Chris Ostrowski, was then hospitalised with suspected swine flu in the final days of campaigning, meaning that Labour had little presence on the streets of Norwich North (big Labour officials, including Gordon Brown, were also accused of ‘ignoring Norwich North’ because they knew they would lose) (3).
So this by-election was brought about, not by the death of a sitting MP, as is usually the case, but by the death of serious political debate in favour of a purge of expenses-exploiting ‘bad MPs’, and by the self-flagellating response of Labour officials to the expenses scandal. But it turns out that Gibson was a fairly popular MP in Norwich North, and in response to what many local voters considered to be his ‘unfair treatment’ at the hands of Labour’s disciplinarians many of them stayed at home in protest. Labour’s vote fell from 21,097 (for Gibson) in the 2005 General Election to 6,243 (for Ostrowski) in last week’s by-election; from 44.9 per cent of the vote in 2005 to 18.16 per cent of the vote today. For much of the British electorate, the expenses scandal has summed up the distance and jobsworthiness of today’s politicians – but, in this instance, voters seemed to protest against the apolitical exploitation of the expenses scandal by party officials hoping to prove their whiter-than-white credentials.
Yet if the by-election captured Labour’s powers of self-destruction – in an election defeat it entirely brought on itself – then it also shone a light on the vacuous nature of what some refer to as the Tories’ surge to future power. Labour lost, yes, but the Tories didn’t really win – or rather, they only won by default. For all of leader David Cameron’s talk of a ‘stunning victory’ for Chloe Smith, in fact the Tories did not boost their vote share very dramatically in Norwich North. In the 2005 General Election, on a turnout of 61.1 per cent, they came second with 15,638 votes; last week, on a turnout of 45.9 per cent, they came first with 13,591 votes. This means the Tories share of all votes cast went up by 6.3 per cent since 2005 – but considering that Labour’s fell by 26.7 per cent, it is clear that people disillusioned with Labour are not rushing into Cameron’s arms, despite widespread media and academic predictions that a softer, more ‘left-leaning’ Tory Party could attract Labour voters (4).
The Tories’ less-than-impressive victory was built on disillusionment with, and stay-at-home protest against, the Labour Party rather than on any enthusiasm for Cameron’s flimsy political programme. It’s worth noting that Cameron visited Norwich North six times during the by-election, in a Tory Central Office campaign that cost an estimated £100,000, and there was a ‘flood of Tory MPs and shadow ministers knocking on doors’. And yet, in the words of one report, ‘enthusiasm for the Cameroons was lacking on the doorstep’ (5). Norwich North illustrates that we are living through something rather different from 1997: there is no electoral surge away from one discredited party towards something ‘New’, but rather a general sense that few of them are worth voting for today.
The fortunes of the Lib Dems and the Greens are striking, too. The Lib Dem vote actually fell by 2.23 per cent – they came third with 4,803 votes. The Greens, meanwhile, who it was widely predicted would do well, came fifth behind the UK Independence Party, with 3,350 votes. The Lib Dems and Greens are little more than the receptacle parties for people’s disillusionment with mainstream politics, and Norwich North confirms that nothing big or serious or inspiring can be built on that basis. These parties look destined always to win relatively small numbers of ‘protest votes’, but nothing more.
The true victors in the Norwich North by-election were anti-politics and cynicism – not amongst the electorate, who are so often branded as apathetic by political observers, but amongst the various candidates and their party leaders. Considering what was on offer in the Norwich North by-election – a clash between the two main candidates over who would be the squarest and best-behaved MP – it is entirely understandable that a majority of voters chose to stay at home.
Norwich North provided an insight into what post-expenses politics might look like. Tory Chloe Smith presented herself as the anti-Westminster candidate, more interested in being transparent and prefect-like than getting stuck into political debate or stirring up political controversy. She even made a ‘contract’ with the voters of Norwich North, promising them: ‘I will publish the details of all my personal expenses, office expenses and donations on my website so the people who employ me – the public – can see them easily. Every year I’ll appoint a firm of local auditors to sign off my expenses and I’ll let the local newspapers go through my full set of claims.’ (6) She treats politics as little more than a local business initiative, and sees voters, not as political creatures with aspirations and visions for the future, but as petty auditors who should pore over how much she spends on Kit-Kats and hairspray. Meanwhile, Labour’s Chris Ostrowski published a ‘25-point pledge to clean up politics’ in which he, too, promised to ‘publish online my full salary’ and to ‘never claim expenses for food’, etczzzz (7).
This shows what post-expenses ‘clean politics’ really means: boring politics, or in fact no politics at all. It is accountancy in place of debate, and auditing in place of political representation. This is really a form of political disenfranchisement, where the voters of Norwich North were effectively robbed of the opportunity to pass their judgements on Labour’s and the Conservatives’ political track records, and invited instead to cast their votes on MPs’ personal probity and petty financial matters alone. Maybe this is why so many people stayed at home: not because they are not interested in politics, but because they are. It is time we injected some much-needed debate into electoral politics, and defended the right to vote on political matters, before a clean, square, politics-free General Election is upon us – and before parliament is stuffed with apolitical Cameroon carbon-copies like Chloe Smith.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
Mick Hume asked what’s the point of an election without alternatives? and said the Labour party died 25 years ago. Brendan O’Neill described Gordon Brown as the hangdog dictator in Downing Street. Frank Furedi said the Crewe by-election was a Farce War, not Class War. Rob Lyons noted the crisis-ridden nature of Brown’s Labour government. David Chandler asked why Gordon Brown hates politics. Or read more at spiked issue British Politics.
(1) See The hangdog dictator in Downing Street, by Brendan O’Neill
(2) Ian Gibson deselected by Labour, Daily Telegraph, 2 June 2009
(3) Norwich North victory spells relief for Tory leadership, Guardian, 24 July 2009
(4) The maverick ideas of red Toryism could give Cameron a potent edge, Guardian, 9 February 2009
(5) Norwich North victory spells relief for Tory leadership, Guardian, 24 July 2009