Saturday, 31 March 2012

Voting By Numbers

There is a great deal around the media about the Bradford by-election and the return of the Scottish-London East Ender George Galloway to the House of Commons.  A number have commented that looking down the years it is not so exceptional a result.  There have been by-elections of the past that have had a “shock” effect.

Apparently, George won just over half the votes cast.  Tellingly this was said to be a “good” turnout of just over half the electors.  So George is essentially elected by a minority of the electorate and it is not the “massive” victory that is claimed.

A rag bag of reasons have been given for this, TV comments have mentioned that he is “charismatic” and “knows what people want”.  One wonders how many dictators, also elected essentially on a minority vote owed their rise to exactly these qualities.

My view is that these by-election and “surprise” results very often occur when a local electorate does reflect a wider view of the state of affairs.  Also, what is critical is when an electorate is baffled, uncertain as to who stands for what at the centre and has begun to dislike what has been happening to it.

My memory of one by-election which fits this bill is that of Orpington on 15 March 1962 when Eric Lubbock, a local Liberal councillor and last minute choice turned over a large Conservative majority and shut out the Labour party. 

This was before the 1963 Profumo Scandal broke and the campaign was essentially about economic policy and the way we were being governed.  Harold Macmillan had managed to revive the Conservative Party to win the General Election in 1959 but did so by ramping up public spending.

By late 1961 the vultures were coming home to roost and picking over what was left of the Conservative economic policy.  A wage freeze on public sector workers had just been announced in 1962 and it was the effect on nurses; then paid poor wages, that commanded the media attention along with teachers.

Also, during the period 1960 to May 1963 National Service in the military was being wound down.  This impacted on employment in many ways.  There were large numbers of officers whose careers were seriously affected and left to look for anything in “management” that would take them.  With the difficulties in what was left of an Empire in rapid contraction there were the many returning personnel at all levels, also seeking comparable employment. 

Whilst many still held on to visions of British greatness and all that, my feeling is that amongst the former rankers there were very many who felt that the sooner we were out of it all the better and wanted just work, housing and a decent education for the kids, thank you very much.

Whilst Conservative support during 1961 declined the Labour Party had its own problems.  Gaitskell had been defeated in 1959 because he and his supporters had failed to convince enough voters and supporters and he was still struggling into 1963 to move the Party forward. 

Between unions with a strong distaste for change but a huge appetite for State support of major declining industries, increasing and substantial foreign competition, no clear way forward for a changing and more aware population and clear disarray in the government  neither party could control either the course of events or the direction of policy. 

The electorate were faced with choices that simply seemed unworkable and irrational.  Also, the attempt to go into Europe had been blocked and other avenues for progress or success did not seem to be available.

Had the Liberal Party in 1962 had the organisation and structure to mount a serious national assault on the traditional parties with policies more adapted to the future than the past, the Lubbock result might have triggered a revival. 

They did manage some successes under Jo Grimond who did have a vision for the future but not one that the electorate as a whole felt comfortable with. 

In any case the changes of leadership bringing Wilson to Labour on the death of Gaitskell and firstly Home and then Heath to put some backbone into the Conservatives meant that the Liberals continued to struggle for the critical share of the vote that might have meant access to power.

There is a familiar ring to all this.  For the present what happens next will be what happens next.  At least in 1966 we did win the World Cup.

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