4 Things the Wythenshawe and Sale East By-election Tell Us (About English Party Politics)

by Aaron Bastani

14 February 2014

The recent death of Labour MP Paul Goggins recently triggered a by-election in Wythenshawe and Sale East. The vote took place yesterday with the results being finally declared in the early hours of this morning. What do those results tell us, if anything, about where the political parties stand ahead of May’s elections to the European Parliament? Below Aaron Bastani outlines four things the Wythenshawe and Sale East by-election tell us about the present state of play.

1. People really aren’t up for voting.

Yes this was a safe seat and yes it came in the middle of a fixed parliament but the turnout, 28%, was incredibly low. While it wasn’t the 18% turnout seen in the Manchester Central by-election of November 2012 (the lowest turnout in British politics since the war) these kinds of affairs increasingly seem incapable of even attracting a third of the potential vote. Local elections in 2012 attracted under 32% while the shambolic elections for Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) the same year mustered an inglorious 15%. While dynamic, local politics is often offered as a solution to this the most recent London mayoral election, again in 2012,  attracted a vote of less than 38%.  My take on this is quite simple: people don’t want to participate in a political and electoral system which they view as unrepresentative and actively disenfranchising. Something is seriously wrong but Westminster is unwilling to face up to its increasing illegitimacy.

2. UKIP are making headway.

UKIP will definitely gain MEPs in this May’s elections to the European Parliament but the big question is whether they can finish first – ahead of not only the Tories but also the Labour Party. I think that is likely because elections to the European Parliament are increasingly viewed by electorates across Europe as not only parliamentary ‘mid-terms’ but also a rare opportunity for a protest vote against the European Union more generally. That momentum is unlikely to yield significant breakthroughs at Westminster elections the following year but it is clear that Farage and UKIP are aware of this and are now seeking to build local, sustainable bases of support through local and by-elections. The complete lack of a local activist base showed in UKIP’s comparatively weak postal vote in Wythenshawe and Sale East (which ended up being 40% of the total vote). Here the local Labour party trounced them and organisational resources ultimately meant more than pictures of Farage with a pint and the Racing Post. That said, UKIP’s performance contra Labour at the ballot in non-postal votes was much closer than any anticipated and a testament to how far they have come and how quickly.

3. The Conservative Party is vanishing from large swathes of the country.

Of 59 Scottish MPs the Conservative Party presently has one. That is relatively old news. What is newer is that the Conservative Party is no longer a party, even of opposition, in much of the English North. Farage himself drew the same parallels last year when he pointed out how the Conservative Party was the biggest party in Scotland in the 1955 election but has now all but disappeared. As the Guardian points out this morning, when Churchill’s Conservatives regained power in 1951, there was a gap of three points between the north and the rest of England. Things have dramatically changed however and an ICM and Sunday Telegraph poll conducted in November last year showed that the Conservatives are now as unpopular in the north as they are in Scotland.

4. The Liberal Democrats too.

Victory in Eastleigh last year has given the Liberal Democrats a false sense of security. In seats like that, where they can still fight strong ‘ground wars’ and win big swathes of the postal vote like Labour did yesterday, they will be okay. Elsewhere however they look in big trouble. Last night they lost their deposit, the eighth time that has happened since 2010. That was unthinkable before joining the coalition government in the May of that year. Such diabolical performances will increasingly bleed into local election results and what is more expect them to do dreadfully this May in elections to the European parliament where they face wipe out.

In many cities, particularly in the North, there is now a political vacuum with no significant opposition to a Labour Party that is winning big but on tiny turnouts. That might be filled by UKIP but it doesn’t have to be and here there are major opportunities for the Green Party and independents with local connections. That might happen but equally it might not. What is clear is that the present trend is one of electoral disenchantment unprecedented in the post-war period.

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