Peter Kenyon reviews Conservative and Labour Party electoral prospects in the wake of the North Shropshire by-election
Voters in the Brexit-supporting, predominantly rural North Shropshire parliamentary constituency that has voted Conservative for nearly 200 years, have a Liberal Democrat MP. Tory prime minister Boris Johnson’s job is on the line. Labour leader Keir Starmer’s pipedream of winning a majority of seats in the next British general election has been shattered.
How can this be? The Tories held the seat in 2019 with a 23,000 majority. Labour trailed in second, followed by the Lib Dems. Given the circumstances leading to the by-election, Labour was a shoo-in according to Starmer’s glee-club. It proved to be very different. The Lib Dems won with a 34% swing from Conservative – the seventh-largest in modern political history. That has profound implications for swathes of Conservative seats in the blue belt, where the Lib Dems were close on the heels of winning Tories in 2019. One psephologist has calculated the Tories would be left with three seats if that swing were replicated across the UK.
Why the shift in sentiment? The by-election was triggered by the resignation of Owen Patterson, who had been found guilty of breaches of parliamentary standards for lobbying ministers on behalf of paying clients. Instead of accepting his penalty – suspension from the House of Commons for 30 days – his friends lobbied Johnson to change the rules regarding parliamentary standards and legislate for corruption. Typically, Johnson led the charge and hustled his backbenchers through the lobby, provoking a massive parliamentary and public outcry. Within 24 hours, Patterson was abandoned by Johnson and his scheme to make corrupt parliamentary practices legal was shredded. Patterson resigned. This self-inflicted political wound coincided with more revelations of Covid-19 regulation-busting by Tory ministers and their political aides. Opposition politicians voiced new and damaging mantras: “One rule for us, no rules for the Tories” or “One rule for them, another rule for the rest of us”. The idea is now firmly fixed in the public psyche. With the new Omicron variant infecting the world, this loss of public trust in government could not have come at a worse time for the management of a two-year-old Covid pandemic.
Tory spokespersons are seeking to brush off the loss of North Shropshire as a normal mid-term electoral event. But the prime minister’s position is vulnerable. Once seen as an election winner, his reputation as such has been damaged. However, his party’s standing in the opinion polls has only recently started to slip, as has his personal reputation. Some commentators point to the speed with which former Tory leader, Margaret Thatcher, was forced to resign in 1990, just four weeks after a similarly heavy by-election defeat in Eastbourne. Whatever her faults, no-one would accuse her of using lying as her stock-in-trade – as increasingly Johnson is.
Johnson won his infamous election in 2019 on the basis of a pack of lies to ‘Get Brexit Done’. That was after he lied to the Queen to get Parliament prorogued (suspended), a decision which was quickly overturned by the UK Supreme Court. Legislation has just been enacted to deny human rights to asylum seekers, ban peaceful protest, imprison protesters and criminalise the Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s volunteers rescuing those in peril on the sea. Draft legislation is before Parliament to deny the vote to anyone without photographic ID – estimated to number six million. The Health and Social Care Bill threatens the future of the NHS.
For a growing catalogue of lies go to the website boris-johnson-lies.com1 – the lies, falsehoods and misrepresentations of Boris Johnson and his government. The corrupt conduct of Conservative legislators is covered elsewhere in the current issue of Chartist by our regular contributor, Prem Sikka [coming to the website soon – WebEd]. The corrupt letting of contracts and jobs by the Tories is being researched and pursued in the courts by the Good Law Project,2 on Twitter and on the web.
Spectacular defeat in the North Shropshire by-election is a powerful signal that corruption of the public realm by Johnson and his Conservative cronies is beginning to affect voters’ behaviour.
How should Labour respond? In the light of its failure to take North Shropshire, it should examine its prospects of forming a majority government in the foreseeable future. Johnson’s relentless assaults on the public realm require a new politics in which ‘the winner takes all’ is confined to the dustbin of history.
- Labour should propose to secure proportional representation and consensual politics as the norm.
- Labour tribalism has to be put aside, along with the personal hatred of Lib Dems for going into coalition with the Tories in 2010.
- Labour must back electoral reform at its 2022 Conference and seek to build a broad national consensus that it is serious.
- Its credibility with other opposition parties would be enhanced if it repositioned itself re: relations with the EU. A commitment to repairing the worst of the Brexit damage by seeking to rejoin the customs union and the Single Market would go down well with business.
Taken together with pledges to restore trust in politics and rebuild democracy (repealing much of current legislation being promoted by the Tories) might put Labour in pole position to lead a coalition government after the next general election.
- The author contributes financially to this organisation, but gets no financial reward – just the satisfaction of doing the right thing.
- He contributes to this one too.