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Friday, 24 February 2017

Some thoughts on Stoke and Copeland

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

And so the much anticipated by-elections of Copeland and Stoke threw up results that were interesting but not altogether surprising.

In Copeland, the result was what I feared it would be. True, there were positives for the Liberal Democrats - we increased our vote and moved into a creditable third place (up from 4th in 2015). I'm not sure it can be called a positive result for us, as a Tory win - the first time a party of government has gained from the official opposition since 1982 - has resulted in Conservative triumphalism and has inevitably been taken by the government as an indicator of approval in its policy direction. After Witney and Richmond Park, the momentum was very definitely with the Lib Dems - but there can be no escaping that the real winners last night were the government. Coming third of course represents some kind of progress, but I argued in December that our main objective should be to avoid a Tory win and that was, unfortunately, something we were unable to prevent.

The Conservative victory is as much a setback for everything we stand for as it is for Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party. It's a defeat for progressive politics. This is so self-evident that I shouldn't have to explain the point further.

Labour is clearly a party with some real problems, most of them of its own making. Copeland is an unusual seat in that while it has been Labour-held for 81 years, for much of that time it was a two-way Lab-Con marginal. But in usual circumstances a Labour Party in opposition would hold somewhere like this, and hold it comfortably. On the other hand, the Conservatives have proven themselves able to squeeze UKIP and effectively appeal to UKIP supporters. Labour have an identity problem; the Tories are happy to adopt a new Euro-hostile, UKIP-lite identity.

I asked in December whether we should stand a candidate in Copeland at all. In the final analysis, our vote made the difference. In the absence of any constructive dialogue with Labour it is doubtful that any "progressive alliance" would have been possible, but I think serious questions now have to be asked about how collaboration around by-elections can take place. I suspect that More United isn't the answer, but we can ill-afford too many more Copelands.

The media were naturally far more interested in Stoke, not least because of their UKIP obsession. Would Paul Nuttall deliver on his promise to unseat Labour in their heartlands? Well, no - and no-one should realistically have expected him to. Nuttall is clearly a liability and, unlike Farage, struggles to be taken seriously.

In the event Labour held on easily, with UKIP (in spite of all the hype) very nearly falling into third place. Dr Ali, for the Lib Dems, did well to significantly increase our share of the vote and finish in a decent fourth. For me, the Stoke result was the least interesting and unlike Copeland there is not an obvious winner - yes, Labour have a new MP in Gareth Snell but it is clear the party has little direction and that victory was owed, in part at least, to UKIP's counterproductive strategy. There is, however, an obvious loser - and that was Paul Nuttall.

The UKIP leader might only be twelve weeks into his new job, but he staked a lot on this campaign and it failed spectacularly. He went into the campaign in the shadow of Nigel Farage and came out of it with any credibility he once had in shreds. In a constituency in which 70% of voters opted to leave, this really was UKIP's great chance of a historic breakthrough, whatever Nuttall said subsequently about Stoke being way down the list of UKIP target seats. Nuttall successfully managed to transform himself from a relative unknown to a figure of fun and ridicule - quite a triumph in the space of a few weeks. His "honeymoon" period is well and truly over. Indeed, when he insisted that UKIP "aren't going anywhere, and I'm not going anywhere" he was inadvertently making a significant admission. His party aren't going anywhere. Like Labour they are directionless, reduced to unsubtle appeals to working class voters and taking populist potshots at "the establishment".

In all the excitement, for all parties (the Tories aside) there will be some disappointment. For the Lib Dems, there will be some encouragement that the toxicity that saw us reduced to eight MPs in 2015 is evaporating. In both contests our vote share was up on the General Election, which looks good on paper and is certainly evidence that we are moving in the right direction. However, given the huge effort in Stoke, can a distant fourth place be called a good result? There is clearly still progress to be made to get back to 2010 levels. And, while we moved into third place in Copeland at the expense of UKIP (even if it was the second lowest percentage of the vote we have received in that constituency since 1979) a Tory win was the last thing we needed - I suspect I'm not the only party member to see that as a disastrous outcome and a significant setback to the pro-EU, pro-inclusive, tolerant approach being advocated by Tim Farron.

5 comments:

East Neuker said...

In the end I don't care about this. The only way forward for Scotland is to detach itself from the right wing shit that is engulfing England and Wales. I'm amazed you can't see that. A real Liberal party would do well in an independent Scotland.

Andrew said...

You don't care about it? Fair enough. Although you do seem sufficiently concerned by what happens in England that you see at is one reason to leave the Union. As you well might - however, I don't want to see England and Wales abandoned to the increasingly right wing Conservatives. The fact I am often focused on Scottish politics doesn't mean I have no interest in what goes on in England, or indeed other places.

As for what the way forward for Scotland is you may know (if you have read my blog in the past) that I voted for Scottish independence in 2014, and consistently made a liberal argument for it in the months leading up to the vote. I agree an independent Scotland would provide opportunities to a Liberal party. That, however, was not the issue I was dealing with here.

East Neuker said...

Fair enough to you too. I just don't think that we in Scotland have any chance at all of influencing what is happening in England, only of saving ourselves from it. We are not abandoning them, they are making their own way, as the right wing voters in Cumbria have shown, it is they that want nothing to do with a social democratic, liberal Scotland, unless it is to rule and dominate it.

You say that you don't want to abandon England and Wales..... Wakey wakey, they don't care what you think at all. They don't care what anyone in Scotland thinks, they see it as a possession.

We can't save them, but do have a small chance of saving ourselves from the fascist isolationism of Little England, if we ALL put ourselves behind independence, and the end of Westminter rule. Don't kid yourself that you can change anything in England. It ought to be clear to you where they are going. I agree that there Are people in England who don't want to go there, but you can't help them, they have to help themselves.

If we do not do that the UK state will crush and impoverish Scotland, as they have been doing for many years.

I would be interested, however, to hear your views on this, as I can't see a counter argument, so maybe you can try to provide one.

Andrew said...

When I talked about no wanting to abandon England and Wales, that wasn't intended as a statement of support for the Union. It was meant in the sense that I won't cease to be interested in the Liberal causes of tolerance and inclusion in rUK. If Scotland becomes independent then obviously I will want us to become the strong, progressive and inclusive country I know we can be, but I will retain a political interest in what happens in England, Ireland, Europe and the USA (and elsewhere!) and I will definitely want to see progressive parties do well everywhere.

I don't think England and Wales can be "saved" by anyone other than themselves. But however awful the picture is there is still hope. It's why the Lib Dems, the Greens and even Labour (when they feel like it, which isn't often enough) oppose the isolationism and increasingly right-wing direction favoured by May's Tories and the shambles that is UKIP. When UKIP self-destruct in Stoke it's not a bad thing to be reasonably pleased - nor is it a bad thing to congratulate our Lib Dem teams in the two constituencies on well-run campaigns which saw moderate improvement. I don't sense that this Little Englander mentality will triumph for too long. In one sense I'm more concerned with the absence of a credible opposition in Labour than I am the small-mindedness of the Nasty Party.

I am no supporter of the UK state as it is currently constituted. The Union is clearly unfit for purpose to be polite, and unfortunately (while a convinced federalist) can see no real alternative on the table. The Tories care nothing for Scotland, and I'm even more confused after today what Labour thinks. As for independence...it is beginning to look an even more attractive proposition for many than it did in 2014 - I suspect a great deal will depend on the timing of a future referendum and the nature of the campaign. There are no guarantees, but support for independence is higher now than it was at the start of the last campaign, and the EU issue is certainly a gamechanger.

Personally of the two Unions, the one based in Brussels (for all its faults) is to my mind of much greater value to Scotland's long-term interests than that based in Westminster. No doubt there are many who voted No in 2014 who agree.

East Neuker said...

Agreed, and I do hope you're right about the movement from no to yes. It is going to be something if a last chance to escape long term right wing Tory rule which no political party in England seems equipped to challenge in the foreseeable future.

I too hope that things can change there in the long term, but I cannot see where the change is being driven from. Labour is an absolute shambles, and I honestly can't see a Lib Dem govt.... The only hope would be an anti Tory coalition, and there's no sign of that either.
I'm not a member of any political party, but will vote for independence, and could not vote for a political party which openly opposes that (including the Lib Dems).

Slightly of topic, Sadiq Khan has again amply illustrated the depth of ignorance about and feeling for Scotland of all shades of Southern politics.....

As the Brexit horror show rolls unstoppably on, let's all work together to get out of that and be a sovereign European nation.