No sensible politician attempts to second guess the electorate once the polls are open and even less once the election is over. But it is always sensible, if one knows that the die is cast, to get one’s excuses in early.
Former Corby Conservative MP, Louise Mench, got her “it’s all my fault” out there indecently early. While the Conservative defeat may be partially to blame on her inability to stay the course in that oh-so-difficult business of being an MP, the circumstances cannot account for the scale of the Conservative collapse.
Quite what excuse it is possible to make for the Conservative performance in Manchester Central, where the election was caused by long-serving Labour MP, Tony Lloyd, preferring to continue his career as Police Commissioner, is less clear. Here the Conservative candidate lost his deposit polling 754 votes – five more than the UKIP candidate. This amounts to 0.82% of the electorate turning out to support the governing party(1). The turnout may have been a record low but being able to find fewer than one in a hundred people prepared to vote for you is pretty dire by any measure.
Meanwhile in Cardiff South and Penarth, a by-election called for the same reason, there was dancing in the streets at the performance of the governing parties. Hanging on to third place above Plaid and UKIP is, in these times, a massive achievement for the Liberal Democrats – no matter that their vote slumped to less than half its general election share (10.8% from 22.3%). Everything is relative!
And then there was Corby – a classic marginal that goes with the Government in General Elections. The Conservatives polled 6.8% below their previous worst showing in the seat (1997), the Liberal Democrats lost two thirds of their share of the vote losing their deposit and well behind UKIP who were the beneficiaries of most of the ‘non of the above’ protest votes. Indeed UKIP and the other fringe parties picked up 20% between them. Labour’s share of the vote, up the 10 points of so the Liberals went down, was marginally below that gained in 2001 and seven points lower than in 1997. So a good result for Labour. One that places them in the game for the next election but not one which points to an easy General Election victory for Ed Miliband.
So much for the by-elections
The Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) elections for England and Wales were always likely to be low turnout. This should be surprise nobody. UK local elections produce turnouts usually anywhere from 25 to 40%. Turnout for the last European Parliament election was 34%. It was always likely that PCCs would produce less interest than either of those. While people get all sorts of vital organs in a twist about the EU and while ea reasonable number of people tend to be interested in the place in which they live, the PCCs constituencies are so large that there is little with which residents can identify. Low turnouts don’t mean the victor does not have a mandate – everyone has the opportunity to vote, but they aren’t good for democracy.
If the Government had been concerned about turnout, having the elections in mid-November was less than clever, but even worse was the miserable failure of the Government to put their money where their mouth was by providing a freepost delivery. This meant that voters had little knowledge of the candidates, little access to the debate on the issues and poor awareness that an election was actually happening. It may be that these days it is possible to look at the candidates on the interweb but the fact is without a prompt why would they? In any case – the electorate see it, not unreasonably in these terms: ‘they want my vote, they can come to me’. The fact is the Conservatives and Lib Dems actively sought to keep the PCC elections off the public radar. In fact each of the main parties campaigned only by seeking to pull out votes in their strongholds and even there with only ‘firm’ supporters. This inescapably leaves the majority with no contact of any kind from anyone.
David Cameron is probably right when he says that more people would be likely to vote in the second PCC election than in the first. The experience of European Parliament election bears this out. But the one factor that is ignored here is the distaste of the public for what many believed was an unnecessary and inappropriate election. Unnecessary because the Commissioners replaced Police Authorities that had not been seen manifestly to fail in their remit, which had among their number party supporters and those aligned with none but which lacked clear lines of accountability to the public. Inappropriate because these elections introduced to the UK an element of party politics to police accountability. It is quite clear based even on anecdotal evidence alone that this is not something people in the UK wanted and that many who stayed away as well as many who voted reluctantly did so because of their disagreement with the principle. The election of several independents, where they were credible supports this view.
In reality such a ‘principle’ is tenuous. We have always had a degree of ‘party political’ accountability, be that through elected councillors serving on Police Authorities or through the Home Secretary and the government of the day in London. However, what we have also had is a clear set of checks and balances through which the whole community could be seen to be represented in holding the police to account. The PA system was far from perfect and in more polarised areas of the UK underrepresented minority views. However it would have been perfectly possible to democratise this process without moving to an individual system dependent on one person without oversight. In this respect the PCC system is a step backward. However the Labour critique of the PCC system was woeful. Defending a status quo rather than seeking to democratise is a poor excuse for a position of a democratic progressive party.
The response to the PCC polls by the major parties lacked imagination. Perhaps a far better position for Labour would have been to field its candidates as independents and to support other independents rather than to fight the elections on a party ticket. But perhaps it is too much to expect of an organisation that, after all, exists to contest elections.
PCC Elections are, however, a monster that may not go away as easily as some think. Labour, if it does become or lead the next Government, will need to come up with a better alternative than a return to the past.
(1) 2.54% of the electorate voted for either of the coalition parties. The 91,000+ constituency is second largest in the UK after the Isle of Wight.