Friday, 3 May 2013

Welcome to the 80s, Tories!

Have the good people of South Shields doomed David Cameron?

Normally, you would think not. Normally, the vote in South Sheilds - a rock solid Labour constituency in the North of England - are about as relevant to the fortunes of the Conservative party as elections in New Zealand. But perhaps this time it is different, because the wild card in this election, and perhaps in 2015, has been the UK Independence Party.

The UKIP recently drove the Tories and Labour into third and fourth place in the Eastleigh by-election. Eastleigh is the polar opposite of South Shields, a constituency that traditionally returns a Tory or (if they are feeling daring) a Liberal Democrat. In the recent poll there, the UKIP took substantial amounts of votes off the incumbent Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives. The Labour vote - though negligible - remained solid:
Mike Thornton (Liberal Democrat) 13,342 32.1 (-14.4%)
Diane James (UKIP) 11,571 27.8 (+24.%)
Maria Hutchings (Conservative) 10,559 25.4 -13.9%
John O'Farrell (Labour) 4,088 9.8 (+0.2%)
The UKIP had turned what should have been a safe coalition seat into a coin toss - it could have gone any one of three ways, with just minor reallocation of votes or changes in turnout.  If the message of Eastleigh holds good for the whole of the South of England, an awful lot of seats that might once have been judged safe for either Conservatives or Lib Dems suddenly look vulnerable and (worse!) unpredictable.  Incumbents might cling on as the vote splits three ways; or one party may triumph as a result; or the whole thing might be an appalling mess.

The message from South Shileds was much clearer:
Emma Lewell-Buck (Labour) 12,493 (-1.51%)
Richard Elvin (UKIP) 5,988 (+24.21%)
Karen Allen (Conservative) 2,857 (-10.04%)
Ahmed Khan (Independent) 1,331 (+5.38%)
Phil Brown (Independent Socialist) 750 (+3.03%)
Lady Dorothy MacBeth Brookes (BNP) 711 (-3.65%)
Hugh Annand (Liberal Democrat) 352 (-12.79%)
The ranking might be different, and the gross numbers different, but the changes in share of vote virtually the same. Labour, solid. UKIP surging from no-where. Conservative and Liberal Democrat, catastrophic.

So, you'd think, another good night for the UKIP?  Maybe.  But the UKIP sharein South Shields would appear to be made up almost entirely of Tories and Lib Dems.  They failed to make any impact on Labour's vote.  And the Tories and Liberal Democrats have never had enough votes to challenge Labour's dominance in the North.  Even if every non-Labour single voter in South Shields had voted for one party, they would have failed to win.  That's how dominant Labour are.  Near invulnerable in many places, and too strong for a vote split between three squabbling right wing parties to bother them.

In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher won landslide victories inspite of recording a decreasing share of the vote at each election.  Even after the Falklands, the Conservativ Party's share of the vote declined in the 1983 election.  What allowed her to rout the left was the fatal split between Labour and the SDP - converting scores of Conservative marginals that might have fallen into rock solid strongholds, and allowing Conservative candidates to record wins in scores of Labour seats.  Thatcher was never loed or popular; she was merely fortunate enough to face an opposition divided against itself.

The upshot of all this might be the end of David Cameron, certainly of Cameronism as a political creed.  Everyone of his MPs in the South of England will be looking over his or her shoulder to see how close the UKIP is - and that means, how much of the vote they are losing to them.  I don't think their faith in democracy extends to letting the voters boot them out in 2015; they'll be shrilling Cameron for a change in direction (and that means a hard turn to the right) otherwise they'll be thinking of changing the leader if he's not for turning.

A likely consequence may be the political demise of George Osborne.  Cameron will need to offer up something to appease his critics and signal the change of direction they desire; it would also serve to make the Tories marginally less hateful, as Osborne's special skill (god knows it isn't economics) is attracting voter opprobrium.  But the sane option - installing a paternal, One Nation wet like Ken Clarke - is also impossible.  The voters might like it.  The Tory right wouldn't tolerate it.  Not for one little minute.

There is probably nothing to be gained for the Tories by lurching right.  The people voting for the UKIP aren't doing so because they have suddenly discovered Euroscepticism.  They are voting for the UKIP because they loathe the coalition but will never, ever vote Labour.  Moving right will simply alienate them further.  Though the likely Tory response will be to move even further right, just as Labour in the 80s sought support out in the further extremes of leftist lunacy - and failed to find it.

Welcome to your version of the lefts nightmare 80s, Mr Cameron.

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