Barnsley Central: a closer look

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by Sue Varley
 
Against a background of austerity, Tory cuts, and growing dissatisfaction with party politics and politicians leading to general apathy among the electorate, it’s no surprise that Labour comfortably held the seat. The Conservative and Liberal Democrat candidates were poor choices to appeal to the Barnsley voter.  Hockney a Cambridgeshire councillor, and Carman a businessman and political writer from London are tainted by prior association with politics and disadvantaged by being southerners.
 
Labour have been the party worst hit by the MPs’ expenses scandal.  Since the reason for the by-election was the imprisonment of former Labour MP Eric Illsley following conviction for false accounting, they had to find a good candidate to restore some credibility to a severely soiled brand image.  
 

Dan Jarvis, being from Nottingham, would be more palatable than a southerner, a major from the Parachute Regiment with front line service in Iraq and Afghanistan would be held to be a man of honour, a widower bringing up two children gains points as a family man.
 
In the current political climate, even with all this in his favour, Jarvis only managed to increase Labour’s vote share from a record low of 47.3% gained by the already discredited Eric Illsley at the 2010 General Election to a moderate 60.8%.  However Illsley gained a total of 17,487 votes, whereas  Jarvis on a much lower turn-out managed to poll only 14,724.  With UK opinion polls regularly predicting Labour to form the next Westminster administration, it is worrying for them that when it comes to an actual vote rather than a poll, they are not doing better in one of their traditional strongholds.
 
In 2010, six votes separated the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives.  Considering the nature of by-elections and unpopular governments, Hockney did fairly well to retain half of the Conservative vote share registered in 2010 as this represents a swing of only 9%.  Compared to this the Liberal Democrat loss of over three quarters of their previous vote share, means that now almost 1000 votes separate the coalition partners.
 
So what do we say about all this?  The swings confirm that the Conservatives are losing ground to UKIP, Liberal Democrat support is returning to the Labour party and voter apathy is the real winner.  And so far as this goes these swings could have come from pretty much any English constituency by-election, though of course the results would have been different depending on the starting points.  But we need to look further than this.

A low turnout English by-election is a poor indicator of likely outcomes for a subsequent general election, but it is clear that there is huge anger in England at the Liberal Democrats.  It is significant that Nick Clegg did not campaign in Barnsley.  Perhaps he was too busy trying to remember whether he was supposed to be running the country, but maybe party strategists recognise that he is now a liability and not an advantage.  If the coalition goes its full term there may be some recovery of support, but if the coalition fails and we have an early general election the the prospects are not good for the Liberal Democrats.

The real success story in Barnsley is UK Independence Party’s Jane Collins, Yorkshire miner’s daughter and organiser and agent for UKIP MEP Godfrey Bloom.  A minor political functionary, she gained over 12% of the votes which more than doubled UKIP’s vote share, beat the Conservatives into third place, and the BNP into fourth place. Many who would not be able to stomach voting for the BNP would vote UKIP if they were considered to be in with a chance of getting candidates elected.  With 12 MEPs, one from Wales and the rest from the English European regions, they are gaining credibility as a party.  With the current absence of a credible national party for England, UKIP are a good choice for many English voters unhappy with the three main UK parties, and particularly for the Euro-sceptic Tories.  UKIP support has grown at around 1% at each of the last three general elections and they are now showing a consistent 4 to 5% in YouGov polls, up from 3.1% in May 2010.  If the coalition fails to restore prosperity to the British economy, they can expect UKIP to be a real threat in 2015.

And can we say anything about Scotland from these results?

The voter anger with the Liberal Democrats is unlikely to be so severe in Scotland. Scottish Liberal Democrats were more reluctant to enter coalition with the Conservatives, the two previous party leaders Menzies Campbell and Charles Kennedy openly stated strong misgivings, with Charles Kennedy going so far as to vote against the coalition agreement. Treasury associations may prove problematic for Danny Alexander in Inverness, but in Berwickshire the ineffective Michael Moore is as likely to suffer from his ineffectiveness as from his position as Secretary of State for Scotland.  The Conservatives have almost no ground left to lose, and Labour will continue to play on the fears of Scots voters for Westminster.  UKIP have no standing in Scotland at all, they are competing with a weak Conservative party and a strong National party and as they are solidly pro-British are not likely to make progress against the SNP.

When it comes to Holyrood, the results have even less to tell us about voting intentions, but it is the implications of the growth of UKIP that we need to watch. It is the lack of a nationalist vote for England which makes it so difficult for UK commentators to relate to Scottish politics and the Nationalist/Unionist fault line here.  A rejection of EU membership is of course the main reason for the existence of UKIP and withdrawal from Europe would naturally increase national awareness and identity.  But as the English are largely confused about their own national identity would it be English or British national identity?

The UKIP manifesto and policy details are not available on their website currently, but a brief summary of policies tells us they want to promote a shared British culture for all, teach British achievements in all schools in the UK, invest in nuclear power and retain Britain’s nuclear deterrent.  If UKIP continue to grow in England they could become potential coalition partners for a Conservative party short of only a few Westminster seats.  If the Scotland Bill does give Westminster the right to change the devolution settlement whenever they deem it to be expedient, we could be on to even harder times with UKIP intent on meddling in devolved powers.

Could the party created with sole aim of preserving Britain be the final straw that breaks it apart?