Peter Taylor ponders the imporance of the by-election;
It is easy to overestimate the impact of any by-election in the UK: they often capture the ‘mood’ at the time and lurch from one extreme to the other as to whether local factors play a part in the outcome. However, I think Corby did hurt David Cameron’s Conservatives quite badly and will continue to do so for the rest of this parliament.
Let us first refresh the memory of how best selling author Louise Mensch (née Bagshawe) came to be the sitting MP for Corby. Her selection as the Prospective Parliamentary Candidate was on the back of David Cameron’s transformative drive to change how the Conservative Party was perceived by the public at large; only a year prior to her selection, the party campaigned in the 2005 General Election under the banner of dog-whistle politics, which failed miserably to really capitalise on Labour’s woes.
She, along with 100 others was on the ‘A-List’, the majority of which were women and from ethnic minorities, adding weight to many analysts’ thoughts at the time that Cameron was styling himself as the ‘heir to Blair’. Many of these PPCs were parachuted in to safe seats or eminently winnable ones, often in place of local campaigners – the seeds of resentment were already sown.
Fast forward to the summer of 2012. Louise Mensch was one of the most ubiquitous MPs in the first coalition government since before the Second World War, constantly making her presence felt on Twitter and on television panel shows and as part of the Select Committee looking into the phone hacking scandal. Her resignation came as a body blow to Cameron in particular, who obviously thought she might have had a more senior role to play in government when he made his first major reshuffle shortly after her announcement.
The by-election date set for Corby coincided with two other Westminster by-elections (in safe Labour seats), Nadine Dorries in the jungle, and, of course, the first Police and Crime Commissioner elections that very few wanted, particularly in November. By now, both coalition parties were extremely unpopular and Cameron’s personal ratings were through the floor. With this backdrop, the constituency had many visits from senior figures on both sides in the weeks leading up to it and the general consensus was that it was simply a matter of by how much Labour, by now the ‘go to’ party of protest votes once jealously guarded by the Liberal Democrats, would win.
Another factor that couldn’t be ignored in the subsequent result was the number of votes Margot Parker received for UKIP in their best by-election to date. It is too crude and inaccurate to say that the self-proclaimed ‘new third party’ have been picking up votes from Conservative leaning people frustrated with Cameron’s weakness over the EU, although it is part of it. It would be more accurate to say that they have been attracting a wide range of people from across the spectrum, on issues from immigration to taxation.
There are several key messages that the Prime Minister needs to take from the Corby result as it serves as a magnifying point for his party and the government as a whole:
- Labour’s current popularity is in spite of their leader and that they still don’t have a single policy on anything, other than opposing for its own sake many decisions they would take if returned to power next time and saying “One Nation” at every opportunity, stealing Disraeli’s clothes. Once they announce some policies (undoubtedly whatever is considered the most populist at the time), it could go either way for the main opposition.
- The Liberal Democrats will continue to be deeply unpopular as long as Nick Clegg is their leader. If they are to recover, they will need to ditch him at least two years before the next election and then make a clear decision on their future direction. Either as a socialist party in all but name (which could tempt back some Labour defectors) or as a classic liberal party as they were before the 1980s (which could tempt back some UKIP defectors who feel that they aren’t socially liberal enough on issues such as same-sex marriage).
- It is difficult to see how the Conservatives can tackle UKIP, even at this stage of the parliamentary cycle. Whilst it is unlikely that Nigel Farage’s party will gain a single seat at the next general election, they could easily come third in the popular vote (which might reignite talk of electoral reform, even after the AV debacle) and hand many marginal Labour-Conservative constituencies to Ed Miliband.
- Daniel Hannan thinks that the two parties should form an electoral pact to ensure that they stay in power in 2015. There are two problems with that: the first is that it makes the Conservative party look ‘weak’ and scared of UKIP’s threat. The second is it is likely that that particular horse has already bolted. Although there is often talk of such a pact, the more popular UKIP become, the less it makes sense for them to agree to it.
It is not impossible for Cameron to recover from the hurt of Corby. Although they lost badly in a swing seat, he will know that mid-term governments seldom do well in by-elections, particularly when there are other factors at play. He can also play the unionist card when Scotland decides on whether to become independent in 2014, although there is a chance of that backfiring if he is as unpopular as is currently the case.
In my view, he should hold open primaries at all of the future by-elections and for the next general election where there isn’t local and popular PPC currently in place. He should also make no electoral deals whatsoever and campaign hard in seats where the Conservatives are currently second or third to an incumbent Lib Dem. As for policy, he simply needs to make more careful, thoughtful, consensual decisions and stick to much more of them once in the public domain. Whilst he doesn’t have the majority of the Blair governments to ram through any old legislation, people will be more inclined to listen to him if they feel he is in control.