Don’t expect Carswell to be a Kilroy


There’s a lot more to the by-election results than a kipper landslide

I stayed up to watch the results. The coverage and commentary on TV is an item of comment in itself aside from the results. The results are here.

The difference between Douglas Carswell’s acceptance speech in Clacton to Liz McInnes’ acceptance speech in Heywood was…well, judge for yourself.

Carswell above

McInnes above

As the Labour-supporting blog ‘Labour list said:

These are not the results of a party that is connecting with its electorate. They are not the results of a party that can be said is heading for victory in any meaningful sense.

Worse still, it seems many in the Labour Party remain oblivious to the problems we face. I can only hope that when we wake up tomorrow there will be an acceptance that a lot of work still needs to be done.

Mark Ferguson on the same blog followed it up with this blogpost asking how Labour will respond.

Irrespective of what you think of Carswell’s ideas, he’s clearly done a huge amount of thinking & research on them

He wrote a book called ‘The end of politics and the birth of iDemocracy’ back in 2012. Below is an interview about the book with the BBC’s Mark D’Arcy.

Here he is talking straight to camera about the book

I started reading iDemocracy but couldn’t get past the first few chapters because I didn’t agree with his worldview or the context he was setting things in. I also had issues with some of his assumptions on choice – which I’ve blogged about previously.

“So, will we see tub-thumping speeches like when Kilroy got elected an MEP in 2004?”

Unlikely – though some may ask how long Carswell will last in the party. The last time a high profile person joined the party and got elected, it didn’t last – Robert Kilroy-Silk falling out with UKIP within months of being elected an MEP in 2004. Yet Kilroy was one of 12 MEPs elected for the party in 2014. As things stand, Carswell’s the only UKIP MP. Mark Reckless faces a tougher fight in Rochester & Strood – especially given the vitriol poured on him by his former party colleagues. Yet having a party leader outside the Commons isn’t unprecedented. Alex Salmond in Scotland, Leanne Wood AM in Wales and Natalie Bennett for the Greens (who currently does not hold elected public office) are three examples. What will be interesting is to see how the working relationship between Farage and Carswell develops – especially as media attention switches to Carswell’s speeches in the Commons and questions to ministers.

‘If I shout my lines to take loud enough, maybe they’ll be more likely to believe me!’

On the TV footage covering the election count, representatives from the three main parties played their game of loaded question followed by lines-to-take-tennis. As the night wore on, so the responses became more and more ridiculous and comical. It also showed their complete inability to adapt to changing circumstances – making them look like they were in complete denial as to what was happening. One exchange, which I’ve paraphrased below, was particularly depressing:

Andrew Neil: “Would you form a coalition with UKIP in the event of a hung parliament?”

Tory Whip: “We’re not interested in forming coalitions – we’re in the business of getting a majority and will work as hard as we can to…etc…No parties have plans for coalition.”

Watching Newsnight now, there’s a clip of Ed Miliband talking about people’s disillusionment with Westminster. But he’s part of that Whitehall and Westminster bubble – perhaps in a similar way to what I am – or was during my civil service days. How do you convince people that your ideas to change the systems, processes & culture of Westminster will work, and that you’re the person to deliver that change?

The speech delivered by new MP Liz McInnes in the clip at the top did not demonstrate that Labour as an institution had changed its cultures and structures to reflect more fragmented and localised political cultures. For me it brought images of Malcolm Tucker standing behind the camera having just told her: “Stand there and read this!” (ie a picture of a very aggressive, loud bullying figure behind the scene who elected party reps are supposed to be subservient to within the organisation). Such a tightly-controlled media operation doesn’t allow candidates and activists on the ground to think on their feet. When you fear getting things wrong (and the consequences inside your organisation of doing so) the impact can be significant.

In contrast to the three party politicians (all men, the only one I remember being Michael Dugher MP) was UKIP MEP Diane James – who ran the Lib Dems close in Eastleigh in 2013. While she had the easier task of explaining why UKIP had done better than the pollsters had expected (vs the other three having to explain why their parties had scored as they had), it was as if the men at times had been pre-programmed to ‘not appear weak’. This then led to a series of exchanges where Andrew Neil – with hours of broadcast time to cover – was able to play cat-and-mouse with the MPs (trying to get them to concede on every other point under the sun) while Diane James came across as having given more thoughtful and considered responses. Here was one example – not with one of the studio MPs but with Treasury minister Priti Patel MP.


Miliband’s response?

He made a statement here. Yet in that statement, it is all the more striking is what was not said – by new MP Liz McInnes. Why wasn’t she allowed to say anything? After all, she was the winning candidate.

“But it was the Labour candidate who got elected – and that’s all that matters, isn’t it?”

As a headline, yes. But Labour MP Diane Abbott made an interesting comment here which reflects how party politics and communications (both technologies & how they are used by society) has changed since 1997 – and how Labour’s structures have not.

Whenever you mentioned core Labour voters you were dismissed. New Labour bigwigs insisted that those voters “had nowhere else to go”. Well now they are finding somewhere else to go: the SNP in Scotland, the Greens and Ukip.

The challenge for Labour as an institution with the above is feedback mechanisms in a social media era. How do you manage dissent and disagreement in an world where almost anyone can self-publish? A more detailed look on the UKIP challenge to Labour was provided by Professor Matthew Goodwin last here in this article.

A misinformed electorate?

Twitter users have posted a number of links quoting comments from Clacton voters who said they would be voting for UKIP because they weren’t satisfied with the Conservatives’ record in Clacton.

There have also been radio interviews like this one. Some of you may also be aware of the ‘Misinformed Britain’ news item showing that the facts did not match the general public’s overall assumptions about major public policy issues. This isn’t an argument for ‘individuals are stupid, take their votes away and let things be run by professionals/technocrats!’ If anything, it’s an argument for making our the structures and processes of our state institutions much easier for people to interact with. One example might be not having such complicated consultation processes – so that more people know which are the points they need to make their views heard and why.

A citizen’s eye view of our institutions?

One of the things I’ve been doing ever since returning to Cambridge from London is mapping out in my mind Cambridge’s institutional structure. The sheer complexity of what goes on in a city of 123,000 people (and growing) for me is part of the problem. The amount of time it takes to map and navigate that structure is huge. It’s all too easy to assume that everyone else has the same experiences, knowledge, insights and understanding that you do. Hence the incredulity of some on social media not able to understand why someone in Clacton or Rochester might say they’re going to vote for UKIP because the until recently incumbent Tory MP had been useless. With very limited time and limited information of varying partiality, it might make perfect sense to vote for a given candidate/party. With a different amount of time and more/different information, said voter may have chosen a different candidate in that same election.

What will the response to UKIP be in 2015?

There’s been a fair amount of comment about politics becoming a five-party contest in England – especially given the slow but steady rise of The Green Party. Party membership data from the House of Commons shows Labour with 190,000 members, the Tories on 144,000 and the Lib Dems on 44,000. The paper shows UKIP with 39,000. The Greens with 25,000 over across the UK, with just over 20,000 of those in England and Wales. The picture is different in Wales with the presence of Plaid Cymru (campaigning for Welsh independence) and the SNP in Scotland – especially given the reaction to the independence referendum.

I don’t think the response is going to be uniform – even though the mainstream media will want to portray it as “[insert name of party leader] takes fight to Nigel!” Competent candidates, local party organisation and activists embedded within existing civic & community networks for incumbent political parties are likely to become even more important over top-down national media campaigns.

“What do you do if you don’t like any of them?”

My good friend Frances Coppola faces this in Rochester & Strood – see her interesting blogpost here. As a candidate earlier this year in Cambridge, I felt it was a good touch for Carswell to pay tribute to all of the candidates that took part in the by-election at a time of ‘anti-politics’. In my case, I stood to raise awareness on local issues rather than standing to win. Simply by being there and ‘quotable’ in the media meant that other candidates and parties felt more obliged to respond to the things I raised.

It takes courage to get the nominations and deposit together and stand for national election. It remains to be seen whether the equivalent of Jury Team in 2010 will form for independent candidates to shelter under, but historically these short-lived alliances have had little impact.

Another alternative is to become active with groups or campaigns that try to get people more engaged and educated about how democracy functions – and/or how to improve it. Unlock Democracy is one such organisation. Others happen at a much more local level – for example Chris Rand’s ward-specific website for Queen Edith’s in Cambridge. I’ve started with digital video since May’s election campaign – filming the views and opinions of people local to me.



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