The irresistible draw of by-elections

December 8, 2011 2:35 pm

I write en route to Feltham & Heston, to give a couple of hours’ aid to Seema Malhotra and her campaign to be the latest recruit to the parliamentary Labour Party. If I make it, I’ll report back in tomorrow’s Progress column.

If you love politics, there’s something incurably romantic about a by-election. An early experience for me was the Liverpool Walton by-election in 1991, when Peter Kilfoyle was elected following the death of Eric Heffer. The local party had done little in the seat for decades. Most voters were seeing Labour canvassers for the first time in their lives. The main drama was that Militant Tendency stood a candidate, Lesley Mahmoud, who had been a Liverpool Labour councillor. She won 6.5% of the vote.

Since then, I’ve found by-elections hard to stay away from, even just for a few hours. That may sound like political tourism, compared to the hard-core staffers who desert their loved ones and move to the area for weeks at a time. My riposte is always that if every member of the Labour Party gave three or four hours of their time, we would have 100% voter contact within 24 hours.

Richard Crossman descibed general elections as the ‘feast of democracy’. By-elections are the snack you can enjoy between meals. By their nature, they are unpredictable, and usually conducted at a time which the government of the day wouldn’t choose. They perform the useful job of allowing a section of the electorate to speak directly to the different parties, and judge their performance. In Eastbourne in 1990, Paddy Ashdown’s Lib Dems snatched a surprise victory from the Tories in a by-election caused by the assassination of the sitting MP. It cemented another layer of despair amongst Tory MPs, who within months decided the best course of action was to defenestrate Margaret Thatcher. Before 2010, by-elections in Crewe, Norwich and Glasgow East flashed a mile-high neon sign that the public had turned against the Labour Party.

Many political greats have used the by-election as their way into parliament. Off the top of my head, by-election victors include Tony Benn, William Hague, Michael Portillo, Peter Hain, Liam Byrne, Michael Foot, Harriet Harman, Roy Jenkins and Simon Hughes. Churchill contested five by-elections. You can probably name a dozen more. Recently, future stars such as Dan Jarvis and Chloe Smith have joined their ranks. Because of the enhanced scrutiny, parties tend to pay more attention to their candidates. For Labour, the choice of candidate is considered a vital part of the campaign. Deep in Labour’s folk-memory is the 1987 Greenwich by-election where our candidate Deirdre Wood, a member of the GLC and a fairly typical proponent of the Labour left’s views at the time, was systematically taken to pieces by the Tories, the SDP, and the media. Like Peter Tatchell in the Bermondsey by-election in February 1983, Wood was portrayed as a dangerous extremist, and she and her family were subject to a full-on media duffing up.

They’ve tried something similar with Seema Mahotra, but without success. Bizarrely, the Tories’ main line of attack on Seema, who grew up and went to school in the constituency, is that she is successful. I’ve known her for nearly 20 years, and her brilliance as a management consultant has always been balanced with a overwhelming commitment to social justice and the values of the Labour party. That she is well-educated, well-paid and lives in a nice house is an odd criticism from the Tories and their proxies. Even more strange is their attack on the views of Sushil, her husband, discovered by trawling through back issues of Management Today. Whereas in the 80s, candidates and their family members were attacked if they believed in nuclear disarmament or the Cuban revolution, Seema’s husband is being attacked by the Tories for making a statement which seems to support George Osborne’s fiscal strategy. I concede it’s an eccentric view, and I will have it out with him next time I see him, but it doesn’t represent much of a barrier to his wife becoming  a Labour MP.

The ritual of by-elections demands that Government ministers discount the kicking they often receive, and Oppositions play up their successes as signs of a broader momentum. The Tories will wheel out some poor sap to explain and justify the collapse in their vote. If they have a sense of humour it will fall to Owen Patterson as a punishment for his Euro-treachery. More likely, we’ll be treated to Sayeeda Warsi’s Olympian verbal gymnastics. Far more interesting will be to watch the Lib Dem vote. In 2010, before Clegg’s Faustian pact was signed with the blood of his activists, the Lib Dems won 13.7 per cent of the vote, or 6,669 votes. How many of those 6,669 voters will vote for Lib Dem candidate Roger Crouch, fighting the seat for the first time? If the Lib Dems lose their deposit, as seems likely, it adds faggots to the pyre underneath Nick Clegg’s feet.

My money is on Seema Malhotra to win the seat for Labour. She’s decent, genuine and local. She’s a good example of someone whose ‘fresh’ appearance on the national political stage belies two decades of hard work inside the Labour movement. She will make an immediate and positive impact on Parliament, which is undergoing an astonishing revival in its reputation since the election. Another new face will enhance that reputation.

Once, before MPs had decent pensions and tended to be older, they would cling to their jobs and go out feet first. As late as the 1979 parliament, 12 sitting members died in harness, not including suicides and hunger strikers. In the 1950s and 1960s, dozens would be held in a Parliament, and governments would suffer a death by a thousand cuts. These days, with MPs in the 20s and 30s, the by-election is a rarer event, so we should enjoy them when they come along. Which is what I intend to do right now.

Feltham. That’s the Picadilly Line, right?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-Homfray/510980099 Mike Homfray

    With regard to Deirdre Wood, the main problem was not so much either her ability as candidate or even her views – many of which in her case are now mainstream, as she was particularly interested in domestic violence issues and women’s rights. It was the utter lack of ability of the party to protect her or assist her – and the fact that there was somewhat less than progressive views on those issues from some quarters at the time. She had been a very popular local councillor but the party were too scared to promote her .

  • Ian

    I am more interested to know why we rushed this through a couple of weeks before Xmas ?

    any result for us over 50% is good and the LD result may not be as poor as some think as part of the seat borders on Vince Cable’s and they have activists out strong down there.

    A key to watch could be turnout, may indicate how strong the anti government feeling is 

  • http://PalinsDirtyLittleSecret.blogspot.com/ MouseOverThis

    So elections aren’t rigged?

  • http://twitter.com/doktorb Líam

    By-elections are always fun – nobody knows when an MP will fall in front of a bus (and I hope none do). 

    I know this site is Labour leaning so I will brush over your rather hyperbolic LibDem diatribe. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/smithuk Michael Smith

    ‘Feltham. That’s the Picadilly Line, right? ‘

    Feltham is nowhere near the tube system. Glad labourlist is up to speed on local knowledge.

    PS It’s Piccadilly.

  • Michael Hughes

    I just read a very good book relating to by-elections and the Labour Party. It covered the Woolwich by-election of 1903 when Will Crooks became only the 4th ever Labour MP after he won his seat in the then Conservative stronghold. William Court Gully, the Speaker of the House of Commons, described it as ‘the greatest by-election victory of modern times’. I was also surprised to learn that Crooks was the first ever Labour Mayor in London too. The book itself is based on the life of Will Crooks and the early days of the Labour Party. It was very good read. Here’s a link if anyone’s interested. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Where-theres-remarkable-Crooks-ebook/dp/B0089ZA05I/

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