The dust has settled on Thursday’s ramshackle polling day. It is now clear that there were a few general trends: the gradual rise of the Labour party, the success of independents, and a steady rise in support for the UK Independence Party.
In particular, Labour succeeded in parliamentary by-elections. To an extent, this was to be expected. Cardiff South and Manchester Central were as safe as they should have been. Corby was the centre of a controversy because the by-election took place not because a man stood down so he could earn more money and have more power (as in Cardiff and Manchester), but because a woman stood down so she could spend more time with her children. And so Labour had an advantage.
However, up 16% in Manchester, 8% in Cardiff, and 10% in Corby is nothing to sniff at, and Labour had a good day.
But the other people who had a good day were independents – winning 13 police and crime commissioner posts, and the first ever elected mayor of Bristol. Compare that to the previous tally no elected independent MPs from England or Wales (one in Northern Ireland), and only three out of 16 elected mayors sitting without a party, and that’s a strong showing for the independents.
Now, every election has its own context, and the success of independents in a race for the new position of Police and Crime Commissioner doesn’t necessarily show anything hugely profound – many of those who won these roles are former senior police. Perhaps people, not knowing what the job was meant to do, voted on what looked to them to be useful experience. More significantly, many seemed not to like the idea of party politics having a role in policing in particular. Whatever reason though, where they had the chance – where there were credible independents – people shunned the establishment parties for them.
However, even taking this into account, the success of these independents says something about where we are in British politics. For people to dislike the idea of party politics in policing, they have to an extent to dislike the idea of parties – or, at least, of the establishment parties. For all of their by-election successes, it seems clear that people aren’t bursting at the seams, desperate to vote Labour. If they were, Labour would have walked away with Bristol Mayor, and with more of the PCC posts. Where they were given the serious chance to vote for someone outside what they see as the political elite, people did so. As Tory MP Douglas Carswell said (warning: Daily Mail link) of John Prescott’s defeat: ‘The days when politics is dominated by so-called big beasts from Westminster is coming to an end.’ We could, perhaps, begin extend that principle beyond people, to parties.
Another party did well – the UK Independence Party. And it seems to me that the notion of independence was key to their success as well – not the independence from the EU for which they are christened, but independence from Westminster. Though they are a party of the right, it seems to me that their rise partly mimics in some ways that of another party who have thrived by being independent from Westminster – the SNP. Their election last year was about many things, but one of them was about a desire to support a party outside London’s establishment Parliamentary bubble – a party who would fight for Scotland. It seems to me that there was a strong narrative along these lines in the Bradford West By-election too.
Here’s my point: These elections didn’t show that the electorate has returned wholeheartedly to Labour. When presented with a credible alternative to either Labour or Tories, the alternative often won. Greens have to be more than an anti-politics party – it’s hard to support nationalisation of the railways and make out that parliament can’t run anything. Anti-politics is bad for the left. I am usually skeptical of pitching ourselves as the anti-Westminster party – if that’s a good thing, why do we want to be in Westminster? However, the results show that people aren’t delighted with Labour. They are still fed up with all three of the old parties. With some positive vision – as the SNP showed – surely there is an opportunity to capitaise. These elections show that we Greens still have a chance to pounce. Let’s do so.