Published On: Sun, Nov 7th, 2021

Making Starmer PM: Shock Tory by-election losses ahead?

Back in April this site told its readers that it looked as if UK Government was fixing to have the Labour party form the next executive branch, and to have Keir Starmer as the next prime minister. Moreover, it looked as if it would be done by having the Tories mired in sleaze, and manufacturing a crisis of Tory integrity, which would motivate voters in the next general election to move against them. This site has also written of how by-elections are used to shape perception to give a particular political party a sheen of success that draws support to it – or, conversely, to make it look like a loser so that support can be discouraged.

As such, the FBEL readership will not be surprised of the “paid advocacy” scandal which has resulted in a Tory MP resigning, and ultimately a by-election to be had, and fought on the very issue of Tory sleaze – with the new Conservative candidate assuredly to be made guilty by association. Although it’s not important to know the ins-and-outs of what looks suspiciously like an entirely engineered situation (so that there can be a by-election where the Tories might be defeated), it is important for our purposes to understand that Owen Paterson committed no direct hurt against another person, but did in fact only that which might be expected of him (allegedly) or any other politician, whether it be local councillor or MP: he appears to have been involved in having government contracts awarded to business with which he had a financial relationship. Given that this sort of thing must be so common, it is remarkable that there wasn’t at least a show of considering rival tenders – which one might have expected to be the case. Instead, Paterson’s beneficiaries apparently were without competition for the favours – and if this was a red flag that would draw attention to Paterson’s activity in getting the contracts placed, then it should not perhaps be cause for surprise, for here we are, one judgement by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards later (which Paterson interestingly called part of a process that “does not comply with natural justice”), and Paterson is at the centre of a Tory sleaze storm.

The upshot is another by-election in Paterson’s now vacated constituency of North Shropshire, where voters have already had it suggested to them that they should vote tactically if they wanted to vote to oppose the Tories. That an idea for a sole “anti-sleaze” candidate didn’t last long, with (from The Telegraph) “casual communications between the opposition parties to field a unity candidate” resulting in a decision that “the move was not considered viable”, doesn’t make any difference because the concept is out of the bag. As such, while the opposition parties won’t engender any objection and unhappiness in their own ranks by, in the end, standing in their own right, at the same time the very strongest of hints has been given as to how voters should behave. It is the sort of thing that stinks of ruse from a place above party leadership.

Now, as it happens, there is currently another MP in a spot of bother, and the fact that she does not relinquish her seat is an indicator that the Paterson affair is indeed a matter of exploiting a situation for a purpose that doesn’t benefit from the downfall of another kind of MP. Claudia Webbe is the member for Leicester East, and until recently was in the Labour party. She was expelled after she was found guilty of harassment, and given a ten weeks sentence, suspended for two years. Whether or not Webbe is more deserving than Paterson of no longer being an MP is not within the scope of this piece, the reader is just supposed to notice the contrast, and note that there appears to be no real pressure or movement to have Webbe relinquish her position. This would be explainable, the reader might then decide, because the UK Government would not benefit in its objective at this time by risking a by-election where Labour would need to defend a seat. For surely, UK Governemnt will have learnt from its Hartlepool experience when, following a trend coming out of the 2019 general election, the Labour vote collapsed, and the Tories were left – in what was a complete shock – with enough support to win the seat.

There is full FBEL coverage, here, but to be brief, in Hartlepool in 2021, the Tory candidate overturned the 2019 deficit of 3,595 votes (in a 41 thousand turnout). But in fact, to have a better idea about why there was a shock, and also about what is possible in the current climate one should look to the 2017 result (which didn’t feature 10 thousand remorseful Brexit Party voters, acting in futility but imagining they were making up for having abandoned UKIP), where Labour won by 7,650 votes (with a similar turnout).

Webbe’s situation is one that is comparable. In Leicester, in 2019, she won her seat by 6,019 votes (turnout: 49 thousand), so this margin is within the bounds of a surprise Tory victory in the current climate of collapse in Labour support. This is why there is no sign of Webbe quitting the House of Commons.

On the other hand, in the 2021 Chesham and Amersham by-election, where the Tory incumbent was defeated by a Lib Dem candidate because turnout collapsed from nearly 56 thousand (2019) to nearly 38 thousand and had mostly taken the Tory vote with it, the gap (in 2019) that abundantly cushioned the Tory sense of safety had been one of 16 thousand votes. This was the only sort of shock defeat that could have been useful to UK Government. Indeed, more like it would be desirable if Starmer’s steps are to be pathed to Prime Ministership, and because there’s nothing to suggest that the tendency for lower participation in elections has ceased, a dramatic Tory loss is something that could happen in the North Shropshire seat. That the Westminster bubble, using the metrics of pre-Brexit politics, reckons it to be a safe seat won’t stop it being at risk.

Indeed, in the current climate (the Fake Brexit epoch, as it has been termed here), the spiel that is sold by political pundits, where growing refusal in the public to take part in the self-defeatism that is elections is just not for acknowledging, is for maintaining appearances of the continuance of an old schema and its certainties, where the only choice is to vote red, or blue, or even sometimes orange, and a result will stem from that. In reality, UK Government knows that it is facing a crisis, and must arrange things accordingly in order to manage.

So, the UK Government is probably well aware that if the pattern of change from 2019 to 2021 that happened in Chesham and Amersham was applied in North Shropshire, there would be a 46% turnout (down from 67.9%), and the Tories would be the main losers so that Labour, being boosted by a small increase of just under 7,000 votes compared with its 2019 performance (to be gained from tactically voting Lib Dems), would sneak in and win by a matter of a few hundred ballots cast.

Indeed, circumstances are such that the very same could happen in yet another Tory seat that is up for election, after the death by cancer (we won’t call it “by natural causes”) of James Brokenshire. This is to be held on 2nd December, and although the triggering circumstances are very different to those of the North Shropshire election, one can be sure that the Tory sleaze motif will infect the event. In Old Bexley and  Sidcup, the other Tory constituency now up for grabs, if the Chesham and Amersham pattern was applied, the turnout would fall to 48% (from 69.8%), and Labour would gain 5.6 thousand votes, and still win the seat, again by a few hundred ballots, because of the collapse in the Tory vote.

Now, this is not to say for a fact it is going to happen whereby two shock Tory defeats are on the cards, but that it is entirely possible after the example of Chesham and Amersham, and if UK Government wanted to create perception of Keir Starmer striding towards victory in a future general election, they would better choose seats where Labour is challenging to do it in because, given the real circumstances that are these days effecting election results, and despite any appearance of Tory dominance there may be, these would be the places to get the required upsets.

And to reiterate, it certainly would not be done to try and create the effect of Labour on the march in seats where the party has an incumbent member, because the same sort of malaise (as UK Government might call it) affects Labour as it does the Tories in the situation of defending a seat – support cannot be roused. For sure, UK Government thought it could get away with it in Batley and Spen with the placement of Kim Ledbeater as the Labour candidate, but it was a bad performance, and didn’t make Labour look rampant – so there was refinement of the lesson learnt, and Claudia Webbe, at the moment – at least (we might suspect) until the way the wind is blowing is gauged† – remains an MP.

Now, that UK Government can adapt to the ramifications of falling turnout shouldn’t provoke anyone into voting just to try and spoil its machinations, and the author’s advice to would-be Tory voters in North Shropshire and Old Bexley and Sidcup would be to be relaxed about Labour victories, and be relaxed about Kier Starmer as the next Prime Minister. All that stuff is not so much moving deck chairs on the Titanic, when the people are refusing to legitimise that rearrangement by not voting, as draining the water from beneath the ship so that it is powerless. It won’t matter who the Prime Minister is when Parliament has been made illegitimate. So relax. Don’t vote‡.

 

† There is obviously some sensitivity about Claudia Webbe’s inertia, and the BBC has news that “Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has called for MP Claudia Webbe to resign following her harassment conviction”. For as much as this noise can actually change Webbe’s status as an MP, at the moment (because action to throw her out cannot happen until she has exhausted her legal options) it amounts to lip service to the idea of equal treatment for Labour and Tory MPs. As the author says in the body of the work, the matter of whether or not Webbe’s seat will become vacant before the next general election will be something for later, after the direction of the political wind has been gauged.

‡ Don’t even spoil a ballot paper. Spoiling a ballot paper counts as voting.

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