2017 General Election Diary Day 3: The Leavers’ chicken run

Didn’t get a chance to write last night, so at some point over the next few days there’ll be two diary posts in a day to get me back on track. Or pressures of work mean I’ll just end up slipping even more and this diary continuing on an irregular basis until we reach the conclusion in July. In which case, I will ask for no spoilers of the result until I come to write my post about it. I’m sure that’s doable.

We’re at a stage where we’re getting more surprises at people not standing in the election than from any surprise announcements of people deciding to stand. Joining the march to permanent exit from the House of Commons yesterday was Douglas Carswell, who decided that as the Tories wouldn’t take him back his work was now done, he wouldn’t be standing for election in Clacton again. Speculation then centred around whether Nigel Farage would put himself up to the task of defending the only seat UKIP have won at a general election until he announced that although he would absolutely definitely honestly with no doubts whatsoever would have won the seat, he would instead be concentrating on his work in the European Parliament. Yes, the man who’s tried seven times to get elected to Parliament and views the job he’s actually been elected to do as little more than a source of funding that he hardly ever turns up to has suddenly had a Damascene conversion to the importance of his job. It’s an act so brazen it threatens to replace ‘killing your parents and demanding mercy because you’re an orphan’ as the definition of chutzpah. Still, the one thing we can thank Carswell and Farage for is making Arron Banks’s campaign for Clacton even more pointless and ridiculous, and throws more attention onto the Tory selection there, where previous Tory candidate Giles Watling (brother of Deborah, who was Victoria in Doctor Who) is being challenged by Tendring Council leader Neil Stock.

Away from the Sunshine Coast, Jeremy Corbyn was launching Labour’s campaign by threatening to tear up the rules and win a surprise victory. Rule-breaking by him would not be unexpected as it’s been a feature of his leadership with such rules as ‘Labour can’t drop below 25% in opinion polls’ and ‘leaders who don’t have the confidence of 80% of their MPs resign’ being thrown out of the window recently. A few people have pointed to the recent surge in support for Jean-Luc Melenchon in France as an exampleof how a Left candidate can do well, but it’s worth noting that Melenchon’s surge has taken him to just under 20% in the polls, which is the sort of level that’s very good for the Left, but would promise electoral disaster for Labour.

(And on a trivial point, was Corbyn’s launch at the Islington Assembly Rooms? I thought I recognised it as the venue where the 2015 Lib Dem leadership election was announced)

Elsewhere, Theresa May’s promise to campaign amongst the people saw her team not telling the media where she was going, then doing a few photo ops in a factory. As yet, there’s still no record of her being in a position where she might face anything at all spontaneous, challenging or risky nad the Guardian’s election blog has already taken to calling her ‘Theresa May of Mystery’.

Now the election’s upon us, a reminder that the Election Leaflets website exists, as in weeks to come it will be being relied upon quite frequently as a source of content for these diary posts. If you get something through your door, take a picture of it and upload it for all the world to see. It’s a good chance to see what’s being said in different places, or just to see what strange things candidates say and what odd images they choose to represent themselves.

Three days done and we’ve yet to descend into Quatermass and The Pit-style mass barbarism in the streets, let’s hope we can keep that streak going for a while.

Potential defections and the Carswell Question

'Before your party switch can be done, you must answer my question one.'
‘Before your party switch can be done, you must answer my question one.’
Certain over-excited speculation (totally unlike the reasoned deliberation you find on this blog) about the possible fallout of a Corbyn win in the Labour leadership election has suggested some MPs might leave Labour for pastures new. As ever, with rumours of MPs defecting, it’s worth taking them with a bucketful of salt as while speculation of possible defections is often rife, actual defections are usually very thin on the ground.

However, Labour swinging to the left after a leadership election has been a trigger for a major wave of defections before, so perhaps we shouldn’t rule it out straight away. However, as I see it, there are two main problems any would-be defectors would face.

First up is the simple question of where would they go? Jumping straight across to the Conservatives seems unlikely, and there have been very few examples of MPs making that switch (the last was Reg Prentice in 1977), especially compared to the number who’ve gone the other way. However, switching to the Liberal Democrats wouldn’t be as easy as some may think. While the right of the Labour Party might be close to the Lib Dem economic position, it’s also the part of Labour that’s most likely to differ with them over security and civil liberties issues. Effectively, you’d be asking the wing of the Labour party that were among the biggest cheerleaders for invading Iraq and ‘anti-terror crackdowns’ to make common cause with a party that was amongst the fiercest opposition to those.

The only other option open to any potential defectors is to set up a new party, at which point the image of the SDP becomes the ghost at the feast (and David Owen is awakened from his slumbers to stalk news studios). It’s not an entirely impossible proposition (and Progress has always looked to me like something that could be turned into the nucleus of a new party if required) but it’s still a major step, coupled with a very high level of risk. Sure, you might form the party that can claim the whole of the centre ground and dominate British politics for a generation, but history suggests a gradual fade into oblivion is more likely.

Even after those structural issues are set aside, the second – and much more important in the short term – issue how any potential defector answers the Carswell Question: ‘will you be re-standing in a by-election?’ Carswell’s defection last year wasn’t just interesting because it came with little speculation beforehand, but because of the example he set (and Mark Reckless then followed) in calling a by-election to validate his defection. Now, you could argue that those were exceptions to the rule (no other defector since Bruce Douglas-Mann in 1982 had done the same) but you can sure that the media will ask the question incessantly. Any defector has to be prepared to face a by-election, or have a good answer to that question that they’re prepared to stick to – saying you wouldn’t call a by-election, then doing so, would likely be a good way to lose it.

That doesn’t mean we won’t see any defections if Corbyn wins, but as the cost and risk of doing it has been raised, expect any potential defectors to try and resolve their issues with the party first instead of jumping ship immediately. Indeed, the perfect scenario for any defector would be to get themselves pushed out before they get the chance to jump.

Carswell starts the UKIP faction fight early

When I wrote yesterday that UKIP’s future looks to feature a big fight between its various factions, I hadn’t expected it to start in earnest until after the election. Even with a lot of underlying tensions visible in the current battles over candidate selection, I had assumed that the prospect of electoral success would paper over the cracks in the short term but Douglas Carswell appears to have decided not to wait. (That’s a Daily Mail link, just so you’re warned)

Carswell’s going over some old ground here, as it’s close to the message of his victory speech after the Clacton by-election. It’s pretty much the credo of the libertarian wing of the party (the second wave of Alex Harrowell’s three UKIPs) and it’s interesting that Carswell feels that now is the time to restate that. Amidst all the speculation about who might be UKIP#s candidate in which seat, and which seats they might win, Carswell holding Clacton appears to be something everyone is assuming. Given that relative security, is he taking the opportunity to play a longer game?

The problem for Carswell is that libertarianism is still about as popular now as it was when the first wave of libertarians started trying to ally themselves with UKIP, and I think we can safely assume – given what we’ve seen of them – that their latest wave of recruits aren’t teeming with libertarians. However, there are a number of people who want a libertarian UKIP amongst wealthy donors and the right-wing commentariat. Yet again, we’re back to the interesting effects of the UKIP leadership electoral system. To make Carswell leader, they don’t need 50% of the party to support him, just one vote more than the rest of them get. By building up his profile now and trying to drag a few more libertarians into the fold (and I think we can assume Carswell’s leadership campaign, when it happens, will be pretty well funded), he becomes a much more credible candidate. He can afford to take the time now to raise his profile, and hope it pays off when the time comes.

Douglas Carswell, ministerial by-elections and things that were obvious in retrospect

While looking around for some background information on the previous post, I found this blog post by Douglas Carswell from 2012 talking about the 1919 Re-Election of Ministers Act, which mostly ended the practice of ministerial by-elections. (They were completely ended by an amendment to it in 1926)

He was using it to argue for open primaries and recalls, but there’s one line in there that shows where his thinking was going a couple of years before he switched to UKIP:

If an MP was invited to become a minister, they were seen to be changing sides – and had to seek a fresh mandate from the people to be their representative.

So, his choosing to fight a by-election when he changed sides from Tory to UKIP shouldn’t have been a surprise, though the interesting question is going to be if he’s now established a new precedent and Parliamentary tradition. Mark Reckless followed the same course, but will any other MPs, especially the next time someone defects to a party other than UKIP?

Carswell’s victory in Clacton: Trend or outlier?

Officials count ballot papers in WitneyA couple of months ago, I wrote:

It seems that UKIP are very good at getting out the vote, but they’ll need to broaden the number of people willing to vote for them to have a serious chance of winning a Westminster seat.

As they’ve now won a Westminster seat, let’s look at the evidence from the by-elections to see what happened.

As I said in that last post, the interesting thing to look at in the UKIP vote isn’t the share of the vote, but the share of the electorate. We spend an inordinate amount of time comparing the share of the vote in elections without pointing to the fact that we’re often looking at vastly different numbers of total votes being cast. For instance, Labour’s share of the vote went up slightly (40.1% at the 2010 general election to 40.9% on Thursday) in Heywood and Middleton, but that masks the fact that the number of votes cast for them dropped by almost 7,000 (18,499 to 11,633). In 2010, they had 23% of the electorate voting for them, last Thursday just 14.7% did.

UKIP’s share of the electorate in Heywood and Middleton was 13.9% – slightly ahead of how they did in Newark, but behind their previous high-water mark of 14.7% in Eastleigh. It’s now at third place overall for them though, because of the Clacton result. Douglas Carswell not only got well over 50% of the vote, he got the support of 30.4% of the electorate. In contrast to Labour in Heywood and Middleton, he was only around 1,700 votes short of the total he received in 2010 (22,867 to 21,113). In percentage terms, his vote on Thursday was 92.3% of his 2010 total, Labour’s in Heywood and Middleton was 62.9%.

So, Heywood and Middleton was around the top of the range we’re currently seeing for UKIP votes, but Clacton was well off the scale. Carswell’s 30.4% was more than double the highest share of the electorate UKIP have received before (14.7% in Eastleigh) and if he can retain that share, he likely will retain the seat next May.

The question is whether UKIP can repeat this feat in other constituencies. Thanks to Ford and Goodwin’s research (if you haven’t read Revolt on the Right yet, you really should) we know that Clacton is the most demographically favourable seat for UKIP. So, we would expect the UKIP share of the electorate to be higher in Clacton than anywhere else, but the question is whether that alone would explain it.

I don’t have all Ford and Goodwin’s data to see what the difference in demographics is, and how much that might explain the change in vote. As I see it, that’s one of three factors likely to predict possible UKIP success, along with the general level of support for UKIP and local support for the candidate. The ideal way to test this would be through an experiment where we ran an election in another constituency with different demographics but with the other two variables either the same, or easily measurable. Incredibly, Mark Reckless’s defection gives us exactly the chance to do that. If UKIP support in opinion polls is about the same at the time of Rochester and Strood as it is now, and the UKIP candidate is also a sitting Conservative MP who’s defected, then the different demographics of the seats should play an important part.

Of course, this could be completely wrong, and the Clacton result might be more easily explainable because of the level of local support for Carswell rather than the local demographics. Other results still seem to be holding up the idea that UKIP have a ceiling of support amongst the electorate, though that segment of the electorate – Ford and Goodwin’s ‘left behind voters’ is heavily concentrated in Clacton. At the moment, we only have the one data point of Clacton to suggest UKIP can win a seat when the turnout gets higher, but Rochester and Strood will give us some useful extra information.

A quick thought on Carswell

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.