First thought … bugger.
Seriously, now that the multi-coloured by-election circus has packed up and left Norwich, and the commentators have commented the tongues out of their heads, it seems worth recording a few reflections.
It was a big and disappointing defeat for Labour, especially given the large numbers of activists who travelled long distances to work in the constituency in past weeks up until the very last minutes before polls closed. They have nothing to reproach themselves for. Nor does the candidate, Chris Ostrowski, who I know and like and am sure will make a very good MP one day.
But the political damage that kept Labour from winning was entirely self-inflicted. The treatment of Ian Gibson in the wake of the MP expenses scandal was ill-judged, just as his cheap sale of a home to his daughter was ill-judged.
I have nothing against Ian Gibson, in fact I have supported his past positions on a number of issues, especially calling for compensation for the veterans of the Christmas Island nuclear tests.
It would have been better to let Gibson face the electoral music and explain himself to his constituents. I have heard some people say Gibson is the only real winner in this by-election, but as things stand, I don’t think anybody has been vindicated by the result. The reputation of MPs – of all parties – remains at the lowest ebb I can remember in my lifetime.
Looking at the results, it seems Labour voters, instead of switching to other parties, simply stayed at home. But was it a big victory for the Conservatives? I don’t believe so.
The Tories got 39% of the vote which at a turnout of 45% means that something like only 1 in 5 of the electorate actually wanted them. So it is possible to win back, particularly with boundary changes that seem to favour Labour by as much as 2000 votes. So the work starts now for the general election.
And let’s not forget that the Tories got 2000 fewer votes on that 45% turnout than they did in 2005 on a 61% turnout. So this is not a time to crow if you are a Conservative.
The Lib Dems – traditionally so slickly snaky at playing the by-election game – slithered in third, which is always pleasing. So no crowing from Clegg and co either. (Though I did like the name of their candidate, April Pond, which sounds like a beauty spot in Sussex).
The fact that the three major parties denied smaller parties and the ‘honest man’ independent the hoped-for breakthrough is encouraging. Party politics is not so dead as some commentators have claimed.
That independent, the former diplomat Craig Murray, says he spent £46,000 on his campaign only to poll 953 votes. Hard lines, old boy, as they say in the Foreign Office.
In an undiplomatic piece in the Mail today, Murray says he was denied media exposure, not seeming to realise that the media narrative was never going to be about Martin Bell style independents but about Conservatives v Labour.
In any case, Martin Bell was able to win as an ‘independent’ in Tatton in ’97 because Labour and the Lib Dems made a pact not to stand against him, after the idea of an ‘anti-sleaze’ candidate was thought up by my former boss, Alastair Campbell, who approached Bell to stand (see Blair Years pp 169-70). The only true independent to have been elected to Parliament in recent years is Dr Richard Taylor of Wyre Forest, who was elected in 2001 on the back of a campaign to save his local hospital.
What troubles me about Mr Murray’s candidacy is not his independence, he is welcome to that, but his corrosive cynicism about politics. It’s very easy to be cynical about politics and politicians, but it’s a negative, cul-de-sac attitude that doesn’t offer any fresh direction, and simply tars all politicians with the same tired brush.
That he stood under the slogan ‘put an honest man into Parliament’ seems a clunking attempt to suggest there are no honest men and women there already, which is simply not true. And to claim to be more honest than anyone else standing as a candidate has the off-putting odour of vanity. No wonder the people of Norwich kept their distance.
Looking at Murray’s website, it seems to me that, far from being the ‘change’ candidate, he resorted to the kind of mudslinging that switches people off from politics. For example, under the headline ‘Rotten to the core’, his website says of Conservative candidate Chloe Smith:
“Chloe has deceived the voters of Norwich North. She has been disingenuous if not dishonest. What else has she been less than honest about?
“The whole system of politics is rotten to the core. The political parties are thoroughly infiltrated with big business, international finance, and the old boy network. It is time for change.”
Yes, it is time for change. But not of the Murray kind. It is time for the major parties to reform our ways and rebuild trust in British politics. That’s the lesson I take from the result in Norwich North.