» by-election ¦ What You Can Get Away With

The Tories have clearly decided that they have to win the Rochester and Strood by-election, and are willing to throw everything they have at ensuring they get their victory. As happened with Newark, they’ve told all MPs they have to pay a number of visits to the constituency, and David Cameron may well go there for five campaign trips. (Another sign of my advancing age is that I can remember when Tony Blair’s one visit to the 1997 Uxbridge by-election was regarded as a major change in protocol for a Prime Minister)

Throwing the kitchen sink at trying to hold a seat in a by-election from UKIP isn’t a rare event any more, but some of the news that’s coming out is making me wonder if the Tories are so focused on the short-term gain of holding the seat, they’re not seeing the potential damage they’re doing in the long run.

First up, there are already rumours floating around that someone is doing push-polling that’s attacking Tory MP turned UKIP candidate Mark Reckless. (‘Push-polling’ is a practice common in US elections where negative messages about a candidate are spread by means of purported phone polling) Whether this is happening or not, the idea that it is has caught traction amongst UKIP supporters, as I discovered when I mentioned it on Twitter on Sunday. Now, there may well be nothing in these rumours, but they fit in with the mindset and narrative of UKIP supporters that they’ve got ‘the establishment’ frightened, and the only way it can stop them is to fight dirty.

As part of the Tory campaign to hold Rochester and turn back UKIP, they’ve used an open primary to select their candidate, giving everyone in the constituency a postal vote to choose between the final two contenders on the Tory shortlist. As you might expect, mailing every voter in a constituency (and paying for their freepost return envelopes) costs a lot of money. This wouldn’t normally be a problem, as Tories tend to have (or be able to get) a lot of money and election spending limits don’t usually apply to candidate selection. However, that might not be the case in Rochester. As Channel 4’s Michael Crick reports here, the Tories are working under advice from the Electoral Commission that this spending doesn’t count towards the £100,000 spending limit for the by-election, but other lawyers aren’t so sure that’s the case. As Crick points out, this raises the prospect of the Tories winning the by-election, but then having that victory invalidated in an election court. Given the time it would take for a complaint to be filed and an election court to sit, it’s unlikely there’d have to be a second by-election before the General Election, but I don’t think that’s the important point.

The key about the push-polling story isn’t whether or not it’s happening, it’s that it feeds into the existing UKIP narrative. We’ve all seen the way they rant about ‘the LibLabCon’ and complain about how they’re excluded by the metropolitan elite consensus. Now, I’m quite sure that the regular media commentators would probably dismiss a challenge in an election court as just some arcane quibbling over the rules, but imagine how that story would play out amongst UKIP members and supporters? Cries of ‘they had to break the law to beat us!’ and ‘we played by the rules, they didn’t!’ would be rife amongst them and what’s more, it would feed into the narrative they give to their voters. We’re proper hard-working people who believe in doing the right thing and playing by the rules, but those politicians up in Westminster don’t think the laws should apply to them. They broke the law to stop us winning in Rochester, what makes you think they’re going to listen to you? and so on. As with Matthew Parris’s comments on Clacton, media commentators dismissing any legal challenge would be portrayed as out of touch and ignoring the concerns of the ‘real people’. It’s the perfect way for UKIP to show that they’re the victims of an Establishment stitch-up. It might not appear that way amongst the commentariat, but it would play well on the social media grapevine.

For their sake, I hope the Tories aren’t just relying on the Electoral Commission’s advice that their spending on the primary doesn’t count towards the by-election, and have taken some other legal advice. If they win in Rochester and Strood, they need to do it fairly and be above challenge, otherwise the short-term anti-UKIP firewall it creates could be buried beneath the greater costs they’ll pay for winning it.

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By not simply crossing the floor at Westminster to join UKIP, but resigning and calling a by-election to do it, has he now set a precedent for any other Tory MPs who want to do the same? The last MP to do that for a defection was Bruce Douglas-Mann switching from Labour to the SDP in 1982 (and he lost), and MPs who’ve done it since then haven’t followed his example.

However, if there are any other Tories thinking of doing the same (and there probably are), they’ll be watching what happens in Clacton very intently as they know that if they want to switch, they’ll face lots of questions about why they’re not calling a by-election too. Indeed, a cynic might suggest that Carswell has found a way to establish himself as UKIP’s only MP (with the resulting media profile) should he win and if no one else wants to take the same risk.

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I went to help out in the Eastleigh by-election yesterday, and it turned out to be a day when Nick Clegg came down to campaign as well. At the end of the day, with a lot of volunteers gathered back at Lib Dem campaign HQ, Nick and our candidate, Mike Thornton, spoke to those who’d gathered. As I had my bright and shiny new phone with me, I decided to record some of it. Unfortunately, I only realised when I’d finished that I should have been holding the phone on its side for the better picture.

If you want to go down and help or donate, you can find more details on the local party’s website.

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Chris Huhne did something that was wrong and stupid, and now he has to take the punishment for it. It’s a shame that a career that promised so much has to end this way, but if he’d taken the care to actually drive sensibly in the first place, he wouldn’t be in this position. As it is, error was then piled upon error, got mixed into a sea of malice, and we find ourselves where we are today. As someone who campaigned for him in two leadership elections, I’m obviously disappointed.

However, one thing I would note is that I’ve been told by several sources that the ‘if ballots delayed in the Christmas post had been counted, he’d have been leader and Deputy Prime Minister now’ story may well not be true. Some have told me that those ballots were never even looked at, let alone counted, and others have said that even those that were looked at may have leaned more towards Huhne than Clegg, they weren’t enough to actually win the election. Added to that, my years of talking about alternate histories and what-ifs show the knock-on effects of a Huhne leadership would make the situation now very different.

Today, though, we’re not going down the path of what-iffery, but the neighbouring line of what-mightery instead. What might happen at the Eastleigh by-election that Huhne’s resignation now triggers? I’m going to stick my head out here and say that if the party gets the candidate selection right, then it will be a Lib Dem hold. There are several reasons for this:

First, Eastleigh is a Lib Dem stronghold in local elections – out of 44 seats on the local council, the Lib Dems hold 40, the Tories 4. From what I am told, there’s a strong local campaigning and activist network, and several high-profile people locally besides Chris Huhne. I would expect one of them to be the candidate.

Second, the Tories are the nominal challengers from the last general election, but their national poll ratings have also dropped since then, and in a high-profile by-election like this, they’ll be very vulnerable to the UKIP factor, especially if Nigel Farage is the UKIP candidate. They don’t appear to have a big local base to rely on, and what motivation is there for a Tory voter to campaign to replace one coalition MP with another?

Third, Labour should benefit from being the main opposition in a by-election, but I think they’re starting from too far back. They had just 9.6% of the vote in 2010, in a constituency where they only got around 27% in the 1994 by-election and 1997 anyway, and in my opinion they’re starting from just too far back. It would need a swing of over 20% to even put them in contention (and that would require UKIP stealing a lot of the Tory vote too) and while such swings were common in the mid-90s by-elections, they’re not being made at the moment. (At least, not by the major parties)

As my recent series of retro-post has shown, my track record of predictions has not been too accurate, but I think I’ve set out a decent argument as to why this could well be a Lib Dem hold. That’s not to say that events could get in the way and derail it – poor campaigning, bad candidate selection, a senior Lib Dem doing something even more stupid than usual – but as things stand, I think a Lib Dem hold is the most likely outcome.

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