Westminster Watch

Mark Hatcher examines the recent by-elections and the resulting fall-out for the political parties.

The next general election is barely 200 days away but in the past few weeks, the village of Westminster has been in the grip of by-election fever.

At the time of writing, ahead of the outcome of the by-election in Rochester and Strood, the biggest swing in British by-election history – 44.2% – remains (by a whisker) the Bermondsey result of 1983. This brought a young barrister, Simon Hughes (now Lib Dem Minister of State for Justice and Civil Liberties) to Westminster following the resignation of former Labour Chief Whip, Bob Mellish. Labour’s share of the vote had collapsed from 63.6 % to 26.1% as gay rights campaigner and Labour candidate, Peter Tatchell failed to hold the seat.

The swing of 44.1% at the Clacton by-election last month saw Douglas Carswell romp back to Westminster, as the first elected Member of Parliament for UKIP following his resignation as the sitting member for the Conservatives.

This produced a collapse of 59.7% of the Tories’ share of the vote in May 2010 and gave the Lib Dems just 1.4% of the vote. While the outcome of Clacton might not have been in doubt, the scale of change was colossal. Received wisdom tells us by-elections produce protest votes and general elections bring disgruntled voters back to theirse nses, but does the scale of change signal disruption of the usual pattern?

According to John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, the result represented the biggest increase in the share of a vote for any party in any by-election in Britain. UKIP’s success in the Heywood and Middleton by-election is another game changer. In this “safe” Labour constituency in the North West, UKIP came within 600 votes of electing its second MP.

Disillusion with Westminster politics, combined with a breakdown of traditional loyalties, a general fragmentation in society, the loss of industries that used to sustain community cohesion, the decline of unions and the waning of local government are all contributing to the pervasive sense of political uncertainty. Have sympathy for pollsters, who are still licking their wounds after the referendum. The current febrile state of public opinion makes forecasting the outcome of next year’s election on 7 May particularly hazardous. The Oxford academic, Stephen Fisher calculated that there is a 53% chance of the Tories gaining a majority or being the largest party in a hung parliament, compared with a 47% chance of Labour doing so. If, as Fisher argues, there is a 51% probability that either of the two main parties will fall short of a majority, and the Lib Dems lose half of their 56 seats, the Tories or Labour could be forced into trying to broker deals with Scottish Nationalists and Plaid Cymru or the Greens, or even (as Nigel Farage gleefully anticipates) with UKIP. We could be in for a prolonged period of political turbulence at Westminster.

Conference reflections

In the meantime, MPs have returned from time out in the parallel universe of party conferences to what William Cobbett described as the Great Wen. Ed Miliband’s omission of the deficit and any reference to immigration from his leader’s speech reflected a disconnected and subdued gathering in Manchester. David Cameron meanwhile faced a series of party management challenges, from the acute consequences of “sexting” to the difficulty of holding together a party that is reaching out to UKIP sympathisers with one arm and trying to embrace centre ground modernisers with the other. But the mood in Birmingham on the fringe, in the bars and in the Symphony Hall seemed strangely upbeat.

Creaking justice system

Neither of the two main parties appears to have any appetite for providing further funding of the justice system notwithstanding the evidence that criminal, civil and family courts are creaking at the seams. Of more concern is how the Conservatives’ proposed increases in tax thresholds and personal allowances could possibly be met without imposing further cuts in public expenditure. David Cameron’s pledge to cut taxes for 30 million people comes at a price: £7.2 billion according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. If the Conservatives lead a government next year, in order to maintain real term spending on health for a full 5-year parliament, as Cameron promised party members, all Departments with the exception of Health will have to make further cuts in their spending plans.

A written constitution?

Beyond the immediate concerns of how to reconcile voters’ expectations about public service provision with fulfilling the core functions of the state (including the administration of justice), it will become increasingly hard for the next government to ignore the case for a written constitution. As Lord Neuberger, President of the Supreme Court, said in a speech last month at the Legal Wales Conference, there are “powerful arguments” to adopt a proper written constitution.

This, he thought, would help the UK to overturn rulings from the European Court of Human Rights. In July the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee, chaired by Labour’s Graham Allen MP, published “A New Magna Carta?” This is an ambitious, 400-page stab at what a UK written constitution might look like, with arguments for and against codification and contributions from King’s College London’s Centre for Political and Constitutional Studies. A consultation is open until 1 January 2015 and there is a competition to see who can write the best preamble. This is your chance to be a Founding Father or Mother of the Constitution, drawing attention to the rights and responsibilities that you think are most important. To contribute to the consultation visit the Committee’s website: http://www.parliament.uk/pcrcconstitution.

Author details: 
Mark Hatcher

Mark Hatcher is Special Adviser to the Chairman of the Bar. After working at the Law Commission and in the House of Lords, he became Head of Global Public Affairs at PwC. He is a Bencher of Middle Temple, as well as being a priest. He is Reader of the Temple.