Why Voters Will Make a Monkey out of Cameron's Midterm Elections

By Behr, Rafael | New Statesman (1996), April 9, 2012 | Go to article overview

Why Voters Will Make a Monkey out of Cameron's Midterm Elections


Behr, Rafael, New Statesman (1996)


A good point is often wasted in a lost argument. It will soon be the first anniversary of Britain's decision to reject the Alternative Vote (AV) system for deciding parliamentary elections. Commemorative candles will stay unlit. Even the Liberal Democrats, for whom defeat in that referendum was a political catastrophe, know they must move on. Electoral reform lies in an untended grave.

But buried with it is a crucial observation: British elections are organised as if everyone belongs in one of two camps Blue and Red when the evidence shows that they don't.

To prove it, on 29 March six out of ten voters in West Bradford chose a candidate from none of the mainstream parties. George Galloway's victory was peculiar to the area. Leftist populism blended with young Muslim disaffection does not extrapolate into a national campaign. But that is the point. It is the feebleness of nationwide messages pumped out of central party machines that enabled a maverick charmer with a knack for animating local passions to snatch the seat from Labour.

Party affiliation has been in decline since the 19 sos; so has voter turnout. Distaste for the usual parliamentary brands soured into disgust during the MPs' expenses scandal. Coalition, heralded as a new kind of politics, has turned out for most people to be indistinguishable from the old variety. When the three main party leaders' popularity ratings are combined, they make the lowest aggregate score since records began. It is fertile terrain for NOTA candidates None of the Above.

Ukip, you lose

Galloway's Respect party might have peaked in Bradford but it would be unwise to bet against another intrusion at the Westminster clubhouse before too long. Tory strategists are constantly wary of Ukip. In the run-up to last December's by-election in Feltham, Conservative activists were reporting mass defections to the monomaniacal anti-Brussels party. The exodus was halted by David Cameron's veto of the European fiscal union treaty a week before polling day.

But the demands of sensible diplomacy and partnership with the Lib Dems make Cameron bound to do something that leaves Europhobes feeling betrayed. Ukip can expect a strong showing in elections to the European Parliament in 2014. In the last such ballot, the party won the second-highest national vote share. (On the same night, Britain acquired two MEPs from the BNP.)

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Those are just the English preoccupations. The party spectrum has long been more diverse in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, something that most of Westminster and the London-based media generally see as exotic fringe pluralism. Only the prospect of a referendum on Scottish independence turning "None of the Above" into "Not Even the Same Country" has focused English political minds.

Cameron does not want to go down in history as the Prime Minister who oversaw the dissolution of the United Kingdom but he is being advised that the best service he can render the campaign to preserve the Union is to absent himself from it. The Lib Dems, meanwhile, are tarnished by association with the Tories. …

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