Friday, 4 March 2011

Barnsley by-election: barometer of popular discontent?

Last night's Barnsley Central by-election result is being widely reported as a crushing and humiliating defeat for the Lib Dems, whose candidate failed to even retain his deposit after taking just 4.2% of the vote. The party dropped from 2nd place in last May's general election to 6th place this time, after the winning Labour candidate and - in descending order - UKIP, Tories, BNP and an independent.

It is indeed a shockingly bad result for Clegg's party, even worse than would have been expected. But it was also an awful election for the Tories, whose candidate took only 8.25% of the vote (compared to Labour's winning total of 61%) and landed comfortably behind UKIP. Overall the election was a thumping vote of no confidence in the coalition government.

You can read too much into a single by-election result, but I'm not convinced by those who downplay it because of low turnout or the fact it was always a safe Labour seat. Turnout was 36.5%, which is respectable for a by-election and enough to give a strong indication of what to expect in a general election. Labour's victorious Dan Jarvis and his team will be very happy with receiving a total of 14,724 votes.

It was always going Labour's way, but that doesn't normally deter supporters of other parties from bothering to vote. The Lib Dems managed 17.2% last May, regardless of it being a safe Labour seat. Most of its former voters have clearly deserted the party. It looks like many of them have shifted to voting Labour, which reflects the widespread disillusionment with the coalition's junior partners among people who are instinctively left-of-centre.

It is, however, the desperately poor combined Tory and Lib Dem vote that really strikes me. This by-election was in South Yorkshire but the seat is extremely similar - in class composition and political tradition - to many constituencies here in the North East. It is rock solid Labour, with Lib Dems having picked up support in recent years on the back of disenchantment with the Blair/Brown governments.

Now it is returning to being a place of whopping Labour majorities, while Lib Dems and Tories alike are nowhere to be seen. It isn't the only constituency like this.

The main factor behind these electoral woes for the governing parties is surely the cuts. Opposition has developed more rapidly than many expected. Although that opposition is unevenly expressed, with strikes still at a low level, there is certainly a backlash at the electoral level.

What will, however, be really significant is if the national demonstration on 26 March marks a shifting of gears in the scale of active campaigning - through strikes, demonstrations, occupations, etc - against the cuts. Occasionally there is a single event that raises a movement to a higher level, so new opportunities are opened up in its wake. 26 March is more than just another demo - it is our chance to raise the opposition to cuts to a new level.


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