My first reaction to the overnight result of the Eastleigh parliamentary by election was, as a loyal Lib Dem, relief. For once the party isn’t having to explain away a lost deposit. A more considered reaction is that it shows just how out of touch with ordinary people the Westminster bubble is – I nearly wrote “has become”, but I think it has always been thus. Will they will be chastened by the experience? Alas, there is no chance of that.
By “the Westminster bubble” I mean that community of London-based politicians, journalists, lobbyists and their hangers-on, who control the main levers of political power, but who talk chiefly amongst themselves. There are plenty of enthusiastic Lib Dem bubble-types, but the Lib Dems are better grounded than most. They mainly responded to the Eastleigh challenge by actually going there and talking to the voters, rather than just trying to influence the media coverage in classic bubble fashion. The by election has been a sobering experience for the party, along with the joy of victory. First the Lib Dem vote share fell sharply, and the voters showed no great enthusiasm for the party. Second, the experience has shown just how much the party is disliked by most inhabitants of the bubble. This is hardly a surprise when it comes to Labour and Conservative politicians – but that it includes most supposedly objective news journalists, including at the BBC, is a little disappointing.
Exhibit A in this case is the Chris Rennard sexual harassment scandal. Almost all the news media have been giving huge prominence to some rather old accusations about sexual harassment by the former Lib Dem chief executive. I can do no better than refer readers to the Guardian’s fair-minded Michael White on this. The media coverage has everything to do with trying to influence the Eastleigh result against the Lib Dems, and little to do with the merits of the story. I will give a partial exemption to the BBC’s Martha Kearney on the World at One on this. She has given the story very heavy coverage – but does seem to have been genuinely interested in exploring the social issues the story raises about the behaviour of men to women. For all its flaws it sounded like good journalism to me. But the glee shown by BBC’s Today presenters about the possible effect of the story on the election was entirely another matter. The BBC should be ashamed of itself.
But the voters of Eastleigh just weren’t interested. Mild and old accusations of sexual harassment against somebody that has never held elected office was not the same thing as MPs overclaiming expenses. Neither did the other Lib Dem scandal, that of Chris Huhne’s confession of getting his wife to take his speeding points, seem to have played all that heavily. That issue was at least a legitimate issue for the by election, since Mr Huhne had been their MP, and his resignation is what triggered it. The Westminster bubble’s inhabitants seem incapable of understanding the voters’ lack of interest.
Meanwhile the bubble seems equally incapable of comprehending the extraordinary performance of Ukip, who stormed from nowhere into second place, and came close to winning the seat. This seems to vindicate the stand of some right-wing bubblies, exemplified by Daily Mail journalists, on Europe and other issues, but Ukip themselves are complete outsiders – more so than even the Lib Dems. They have been trying to link the party’s rise to Westminster’s own obsession with the country’s relationship to the EU, and whether or not to hold a referendum. But it seems highly implausible that this had much to do with it. It seems much more likely their rise is a reflection of an anti-politics mood: a bit like the success of Beppo Grillo in Italy. Of course the journalists in the bubble are doing much to stoke the anti-politics mood, in order to help their own standing within the bubble. But this is turning out to be a highly destructive game. No doubt the journalists calculate that what they have built up, in the rise of Ukip, they can just as easily destroy when it presents a real threat. But politics as a whole is being degraded.
Instead of reflecting on this, the bubble journalists are emphasising the humiliation to the Conservative and Labour parties and their respective leaders. But for these parties the election should be seen as a useful reality check, and no more.
My politically objective advice to David Cameron is: don’t panic. The election says nothing about his recent policy move on an EU renegotiation and referendum. I think this is a brilliant move: but it is part of the groundwork for the 2015 General Election, and will show few benefits before then. The election also shows that the Lib Dems will be no pushover, even though many bubblies think the party will vanish without trace in 2015. Ukip are a challenge, but their weaknesses are poor organisation and lack of media friends. There is plenty of time for them to burn out, and the time for pricking their bubble is after the 2014 European Parliament elections, and not before. Tories might reflect that if the by election had been held under the Alternative Vote (the system that they so vehemently rejected in 2011), they they might well have won. Though, to be fair, Ukip would have been more likely victors on this occasion.
For Labour, the result is pretty unsurprising, but it may help their more enthusiastic supporters to confront reality. The public does not share their view of the economy: that austerity policies are laying criminal waste to the British economy. And it will be hard work for them to make progress outside their diminishing working class heartlands. The leadership probably realise this already, even if Polly Toynbee followers don’t. But the time to fix this is not necessarily now.
And for the Lib Dems? It’s difficult not to see this as a small, but positive step forward. The party is earning a place as part of the political establishment: a party that is capable of progressing even when the media is against it. The party can’t pretend, as it liked to, that they are super-clean, and new kids on the block. The public see all the human frailties they see in other parties. But Labour and the Conservatives have succeeded in spite this. In the end people like to vote for respectable, establishment parties when the stakes are high. Instead of trying to promote themselves as a new kind of political force, they need to focus on promoting policies and competence. For all the noise, that is happening.