Friday, 13 June 2008

By-election Perils

Oh dear. Has David Davis REALLY thought this through? Has anyone for that matter?

For those who haven’t caught up with the news since yesterday evening: Shadow Home Secretary and erstwhile contender for the Tory Party leadership, David Davis has resigned.

Not for reasons of scandal or out of any noble desire to spend more time with his family. But because he wished to take a personal principled stand against the extension of the period for which terrorist suspects may be held without trial .

He described the government’s 42-day law as a "monstrosity": part of the "slow strangulation of fundamental British freedoms".

As a result, he is standing down from parliament and his seat in the constituency of Haltemprice and Howden – in order to restand at the subsequent bye-election for the same constituency.

One can see the logic. Six parties stood at the general election. The second placed Lib Dems have already said they will not oppose Mr Davis. Ditto the BNP. Which leaves UKIP, who MIGHT stand if they dislike what Mr Davis has to say on Europe. And Labour. The latter, with a poor third place and just under 13% of the vote, have about as much chance of winning any bye-election as a certain Mr Bin Laden has of becoming the next Pope.

Political analysts are already viewing this as either masterstroke or farce. It is masterstroke if you accept the logic that this impales Labour on an impossible choice. Fail to stand and they are, as Margaret Thatcher once famously desribed another Labour leader, “frit”: afraid to stand up in public and defend their principles. Stand and be routed – as seems likely – and their case for a public mandate for 42 days vanishes. Allegedly.

Against that, their spin merchants are already trying to characterise this action as pure farce. Comic Opera, according to one spokesperson.

Clearly, none of the above have heard of Murphy’s Law, which states that if anything can possibly go wrong, it will.

First, Mr David will not be re-elected unopposed. By-elections are famously the stomping grounds of self-publicists and the politically grumpy. It doesn’t matter who did or didn’t stand last time. Someone else will this time. Even if its only the Monster Raving Loony Party.

In one sense, by-elections matter very little. Stunning victories are often reversed at subsequent general elections, as the Lib Dems know to their cost. On the other hand, they can mark the opening of a new chapter in politics. It was Hamilton, in 1967, that turned the Scottish Nationalists into a serious political force, just as Carmarthen, the previous year, had heralded the arrival of Welsh Nationalism.
Orpington in 1962 revived a near dead Liberal Party. Lincoln, in 1973, foreshadowed the creation of the Social Democrats.

But there are two other places that today’s strategists ought to bear in mind. The Oxford bye-election of 1938 was fought on a single issue: appeasement. The failure of those opposed to appeasement to unseat the Tory candidate was arguably a significant factor in giving Hitler a green light for European expansion. The message, loud and clear, appeared to be that the British people had no stomach to take him on.

Last but by no means least in the bye-election Hall of infamy comes Bootle. In May 1990, the good Lord Sutch, of Monster Raving Loony fame stood – and smashed the SDP into seventh place. A day or so later, David Owen – not yet a Lord – acknowledged that the game was up: if the SDP could not even beat the Loonies, the time had come to call it a day.

No. By-elections are bizarre and unpredictable things. The only sure thing about them is that they have a nasty tendency to backfire and blow up in the faces of all who thought they could predict their outcome. Sometimes with hugely important consequences.

1 comment:

Professor Sapient said...

Cannot believe he did not have the guts to speak up before, why now? After so many rights have already been eroded.