Friday, March 01, 2013

 

Eastleigh – Proof There’s No Such Thing As a Perfect Storm

In short…

Five Lessons From Eastleigh:

1  Partial winners: the Liberal Democrats, UKIP
2  Total losers: the Conservatives, the Labour Party, the entire British media
3  Voters trust or like none of the above
4  Hard work and authenticity can still win
5  All politics is local. Thank fuck.

Two Questions After Eastleigh:

1 With a neo-fascist party on the rise, will British politics get nastier and more illiberal?
2 Will the entire UK media change their narrative about the Lib Dems now? Or will they just hold up two fingers to the voters?

…It’s the two fingers, isn’t it?


Just the other day, I put yesterday’s by-election in the context of the previous one in 1994. So how did the comparison go? Last time, the incumbents (Conservative) was pushed into third place, while the main challengers (Lib Dems) won – now Lib Dem and Tory starting points are reversed, the Lib Dem incumbents were punished by staying in first place and the Tory main challengers soared from second to third. Again.

Last time, Labour began the process of Tony Blair’s coronation by leaping from third place to second and gaining 28% of the vote, showing they were on their way to government. Ed Miliband’s Labour Party leapt from third place to fourth and less than 10%, showing he’s on his way down the toilet.

And after the most sustained, hysterical venom from the entire British media against any party in the by-election history, they showed that they still don’t quite have the power they thought they have, but that hysterical venom does help the rise of neo-fascist parties.


The Biggest Loser: The Media

One thing that, surprise, none of the headlines tell you this morning is that the entire British media establishment believed, wanted and actively did all their power to ensure that the Liberal Democrats were dead, and they all failed. Instead, the only mention is an outraged ‘How can they still have won?’

I’ve been an active and detailed watcher of UK Parliamentary by-elections ever since the Lib Dems were formed in 1988. The sheer, destructive hailstorm of hate in the last week – was it five screaming front-page attacks on the Lib Dems in a row from the Daily Hate Mail alone? – is literally unprecedented. There are no Lib Dem-supporting media outlets, and even the BBC (terrified after its own failings into becoming identikit hatemongers) lost all sense of proportion.

And it didn’t work.

Out of hate for Liberalism, out of fear of Leveson, out of outrage that so many voters had the temerity not to listen to them last time – in their hunger to pervert the course of this by-election, the establishment was utterly determined that the Lib Dems must be destroyed and the voters put back in their box.

The sane reaction would be for the media narrative about the Lib Dems to have to change.

The almost certain actual reaction is that, now confronted with the fact of their impotence even when at their most brutal and determined, throwing everything at us with a following wind behind them – the media will hate and fear both the Liberal Democrats and the voters even more.

So expect ever-greater hysteria and evil authoritarianism.

Paddy Ashdown, as ever, has wise words: “Don’t panic, Lib Dems. All this manure just makes us grow stronger” goes into the pain, the problems and the press’ ravenous feeding frenzy. Millennium Dome, Elephant puts things in perspective, too.


The Main Winner: The Liberal Democrats

Congratulations to Mike Thornton – reassuringly calm, local, knowing his stuff and answering questions honestly, unspun and without a hint of shrill hysteria… Yet, against the two most virulently far-right challengers in by-election memory, sticking quietly to Liberal guns on issues like equal marriage. He was exactly what the Lib Dems in Eastleigh, and the voters, needed for what Jonathan Wallace has termed this morning “The Lib Dems’ Battle of Stalingrad”. And congratulations to all the valiant volunteers carrying out that street by street battle.

Without Mike and all the troops, the hurricane of hate would surely have consumed us. With them, it showed that even a “perfect storm” isn’t perfect. While the Tories and UKIP competed to see who could make Britain the littlest by excluding the most people from it – gays, ethnic minorities, Europe, poor people, people who go to state schools, immigrants – and Labour struggled and fell short of being the One-Tenth-of-a-Nation party, at least the Liberal Democrats felt authentically British: complaining about the storm, but still going out in all weathers and not letting it stop them.

All this shows that the Liberal Democrats can’t be assumed to be a write-off at the next election, holding a by-election in the depths of mid-term blues and with the full fury of the establishment bent on annihilating us, aided by terrible real news stories. Even the Daily Telegraph – shellshocked and angry that their attempt to bludgeon the voters into obedience failed – this morning admits, calling UKIP the hammer of the Tories and us the anvil (I wonder if the Torygraph’s Deputy Political Editor actually knows what happens, respectively, to the anvil and hammer?):
“It’s the ‘sheer bloody resilience’, as one Tory put it earlier this week. ‘They just won’t lie down and die.’
“Eastleigh is yet more proof of an old adage: in the event of a nuclear holocaust, all that will remain of life on earth will be cockroaches, and Lib Dem activists handing out Focus leaflets attacking the cockroaches for not being local.”
When you’ve been in the wilderness for ninety years, still not being all that popular but actually being in government and getting something done is hardly going to make Liberal Democrats give up. There’s a massive relief to be had that, even under the worst possible conditions, the fall in the Lib Dem vote was limited and hard work held the seat. In future seats, we can hope for similar hard work, now given a morale boost by a slogging victory, and that neither real news stories nor the screaming hate of the establishment can repeat such force. There’s hope based on reason that this is the worst they can do to us, and we’ve withstood it. But that’s not enough. We still took a battering, though we stood up to it. There’s a strong likelihood that our anti-establishment vote is gone, leaving us competing for the much more crowded ground of dull, respectable governing parties. The good news is that this win can’t be called a protest vote, but a successful defence by Lib Dems as a governing party. The bad news is that that’s what you say when you’ve lost a shedload of what were very useful protest votes.

The last few weeks have seen the first concerted use – allied to all the local depth – of the new Liberal Democrat message:
“Only the Lib Dems can be trusted to build a stronger economy in a fairer society, enabling every person to get on in life.”
Nick Clegg used the line when campaigning and in victory. We saw “Stronger Economy, Fairer Society” on posters – something I heartily approve of, as it’s about time national messages were consistently and succinctly integrated with local campaigning. It gives the lie to those who say we won only on local issues. And it clearly reflects the party leadership’s desire to compete as a dull, respectable governing party: it’s a new – and sharper, more priority-driven – version of the Alliance’s ’80s ‘Head and the Heart’ message, saying we can split the difference between Tories and Labour and give you only the nice bits of each.

Is this message right?
If it is, is it our priority?
Is it sufficient?
Will it help to enthuse – or even win back – any of the idealists we need to do all that hard work?


I’ll return with the answers to such questions (not all of which are “No”, not all of which are “Yes”; I can split the difference, too) and more answers on what the Lib Dems’ core message should be next week.

Update: So, from the following week, What the Lib Dems Stand For Part 1 and What the Lib Dems Stand For Part 2 – 2013.


The Loser That Looks Like A Winner Because the Media Can’t Bear To Give Credit To Lib Dems: UKIP

There’s no doubt about what UKIP, the party with the clearest messaging, stands for. Three things, two the obvious vileness of neo-fascists, one less specific and more tempting. Between them, they show UKIP’s appeal particularly to some former Tory and some former Lib Dem voters.

UKIP’s explicit priorities: The Double Racism. No to Europe! No to immigrants!

Yes, we know what you mean.

UKIP’s handy new market opportunity: the anti-politics, ‘none of the above’ protest.

It’s clear that the Twenty-First Century has created one opportunity, with angry old privileged people feeling left behind now that everyone else is getting uppity and equal (hence other policy priorities of kicking the gays back down, Mr Farage’s incredible misogynistic sneering, and so on). Even Andrew Neil – so utterly shit as a host of the BBC By-election Special that he made you pine for a pompous but competent Dimbleby – managed to expose UKIP’s man last night by asking “Why run so hard on immigration with so few immigrants in Eastleigh?” and leaving him floundering for any answer than wasn’t the obvious ‘Because we’re racists’. It’s unfortunately clear that, though in most respects the Lib Dems are UKIP’s polar opposite, for the visceral anti-establishment voter the Lib Dems’ transformation into a dull, respectable governing party has opened the other flank – though I doubt very much if UKIP would have succeeded in peeling votes equally from Tories and Lib Dems yesterday were it not for the hailstorm of hate. But then, hate breeds hatemongers.

The media establishment will love to talk up UKIP, and have been doing nothing but all day. They’re the establishment’s wet dream of an ‘anti-establishment’ party: viciously prejudiced, nearly all white, male defenders of privilege. It’s like a party of newspaper editors. The Labour Party has already shown its usual commitment to principle by rushing to the far, far right of the Coalition, again, with John Denham now promising Labour will shameless pander to racism on immigration to compete with UKIP as a trailer for his Leader’s next cynical courting of the crumbling BNP vote in the hope that those ex-Labour voters won’t go to the middle-class purples.

All this mixture of gloating viciousness and craven pandering will, too, unfortunately move British politics in a more nasty and authoritarian direction, but UKIP really isn’t worth it. I’d assumed before the last election that if Mr Cameron won, UKIP would do very well. With the LiberaTory Coalition handing him a brilliant opportunity to get the anti-politics vote as well as the disgruntled Right, I expected UKIP to be regularly scoring 20+% in the polls – as Lib Dems always did against a Tory Government in dire straits – and to take several seats from the Conservatives in by-elections. To look at their adoring press coverage and the craven panic of both Labour and Tories, you’d think that was where they are. Instead, they’ve been underperforming to an amazing degree – something that shows the voters aren’t as stupid or as nasty as the whole media establishment likes to think they are.

Can you believe that UKIP’s greatest ‘success’ so far is to still be on just 20+% in their best ever by-election, and still never to have won one? Even George Galloway’s taken more people in than that. Can you believe that, with all the massively orchestrated press hyperbole, UKIP still struggles to break double figures in the opinion polls? If they’re supposed to be the ‘replacement’ for the Lib Dems as the party that makes the sort of protests the establishment likes to hear, just imagine if in the ’80s, ’90s or ’00s the best the Lib Dems ever managed was squeaking a second place but never winning, squeaking to 10% but never staying there, not having a single MP, not having more than forty-three elected local councillors in the entire UK – rather than four thousand? Imagine what the media would have said about that as a bandwagon, and you’ll see how much, much further down UKIP would be without the heavy support given by the media establishment’s bias to neo-fascism.


The Other Big Loser: The Conservative Party

What can you say? It’s as bad as it could possibly be for them. If they couldn’t win yesterday, then when? As the Daily Mash puts it:
Tories beaten by perfect storm’ of Huhne, Rennard and nutjobs
The Conservatives chose a candidate to give their Leader the finger, a far-right ideologue who disagreed with Mr Cameron on every single issue. That, in itself, was arrogant stupidity when they needed to appeal to Lib Dem voters. And then the candidate made the implicit message that they took the seat for granted explicit with her spectacular arrogance, incompetence and snobbery, from slagging off every state school to turning her nose up at the prospect of any voter talking to her and hiding from most of the hustings. She surely was the worst mainstream party by-election candidate for at least a decade.

And then, despite being identical to a UKIP candidate in all her views, she lost even to them when UKIP managed to find a candidate who seemed more competent. Yes – UKIP seemed more competent and less insanely illiberal than the Tory.

And despite the Tory being so far from Mr Cameron’s position that it’s hard to believe they’re in the same party, the wet dream candidate of the Tory Right who believe that all the electorate needs is shrill attacks on gays, ethnic minorities, Europe, immigrants, poor people, state schools and so on to come to the Tories in droves but which actually drives them away, all of which reason suggests Mr Cameron’s attempts to detoxify his party are right and the Right are wrong… Despite all of that, all the narrative is that poor Mr Cameron is in trouble and the Tories, totally rejected with their most extreme candidate in recent by-election memory, were beaten only because they weren’t extreme enough.

This proves how stupid Mr Cameron was to pander to his extremists on Europe and other issues – feeding them only makes them hungrier. Making the Tories sound like UKIP only makes UKIP seem a respectable choice – and choosing a Tory less competent than UKIP’s choice suicidal. And, of course, it proves again that the media establishment love to talk up neo-fascism and hate not just Liberalism but reality.


The Other Other Big Loser: The Labour Party

Oh dear. Poor Ed. Again. Eastleigh is only the latest result to put the Mili into humiliation.

Only a few weeks ago, Labour were talking of Eastleigh as a test for Mr Miliband’s “One Nation” idea. Failed. When Tony Blair was headed into government he went from third to second here – now Labour goes from third to fourth, just scraping a third of Blair’s vote share (but not scraping into even double figures).

But then, everyone always knew John O’Farrell would have a Weak Ending. It’s only by being awarded points for turning up that he rises above the level of the Tory hustings-dodger as a terrible, incompetent, foot-in-mouth candidate.

Labour had two messages last night:
I’d say more about Labour, but there’s not much I can fit in less than 10% of the space and, on the results, why bother?


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