Eastleigh by-election result raises a dilemma for SNP over continued support for European Union, writes Alf Young
HARD experience suggests that it is unwise to read too much into the outcome of any by-election, however dramatic the result. My last hands-on experience of such things was a long time ago, in 1978, when Labour in Scotland held – in the space of seven months – the seats of Glasgow Garscadden, Hamilton and Berwick and East Lothian. At the time, some of us wondered if the party could cling on to any of them.
The economic backdrop was grim. The SNP was on its 70s roll. In Garscadden, all six council seats were held by Nationalists. Hamilton had been captured for a time, 11 years before, by the SNP’s Winnie Ewing. In Berwick and East Lothian, Scottish Labour was trying to fill the shoes of one of its major thinkers, John P Mackintosh, who had died in his prime. In the event, Labour comfortably held all three. But the following May, having lost a confidence vote, the Jim Callaghan government was swept away by the Tories. The Margaret Thatcher years had begun.
Thursday’s by-election in Eastleigh was the Liberal Democrats’ to lose. Their previous incumbent, a core member of the coalition Cabinet, had pleaded guilty to perverting the course of justice and looks to be heading for a spell in jail. The party’s UK-wide poll ratings are still in the doldrums. And this campaign in Hampshire was fought out against the backdrop of the Lord Rennard affair, involving disputed allegations of inappropriate sexual advances to women in the party during his time as a party official.
Watching party leader Nick Clegg in recent days, trying to explain how the Lib Dems had handled these allegations, has been painful. Here was a passable impersonation of a man slowly drowning under waves of conflicting accounts. Losing Eastleigh would have come as no surprise to anyone. Yet, astonishingly, in the end, the Lib Dem candidate Mike Thornton held on. By 1771 votes. The big loser was David Cameron, when Ukip surged into second place, eclipsing a hapless Conservative candidate who gave a passable impersonation throughout of having herself swallowed the entire Ukip policy manual. Mr Cameron and his circle seem to see the result as a typical mid-term protest. A storm that will quickly pass. But, elsewhere, that humiliating third place has triggered a welter of right-of-centre soul-searching.
Some, who can’t forgive the Prime Minister for neglecting the concerns of core Tory voters and indulging in too much off-piste dabbling – in everything from gay marriage to the big society – clearly want shot of him. Many have concluded that, with the right-of-centre vote now hopelessly split, the way is clear for Labour under Ed Miliband to recapture Downing Street in 2015 on as little as 35 per cent of the popular vote.
Labour came a distant fourth in Eastleigh, on a virtually static vote share. But its candidate, John O’Farrell, offered this post-count observation: “Still too many voters angry with all politicians,” he tweeted. He’s right, I fear. Despite a media onslaught throughout the campaign, only one in two electors in Eastleigh even bothered to vote. Yet, that 52 per cent turnout is the highest recorded in a UK by-election since 2008.
Three in ten of those who did vote swung behind a party whose leader, Nigel Farage, is fond of portraying Tories, Lib Dems and Labour as three social democratic parties “frankly, indistinguishable from each other”.
Yes, Ukip panders to voter fears over too many immigrants grabbing all the jobs going. And it’s got the Tories on the rack over continued UK membership of the European Union. But it’s that representation of Westminster as a parliament consumed by much ado about very little, in terms of competing prescriptions and remedies, that seems to have propelled UKip’s vote share in Eastleigh from 3.6 per cent to 27.8 per cent in less than three years.
The years of austerity and squeezed living standards have tested – sometimes to destruction – public trust in all sorts of institutions and the upholstered elites who run them, from banks to churches, from the BBC and some newspapers to multinational corporations that expend as much energy avoiding as much tax as possible as on serving their customers well.
In politics, hard times first exposed egregious expenses scams among MPs and peers. Increasingly, what concerns voters is the gulf between political promise and delivery. We were told that retaining Britain’s AAA credit rating, at virtually any cost, was vital to recovery. Now that it’s gone and significant recovery is still years away, we’re told AAA was never a big deal. Is it any wonder cynicism about conventional party politics is everywhere?
Well, not here in Scotland, I can hear some of you protesting. Are you sure about that? Everywhere I go, I encounter growing disillusion about the capacity of conventional party politics to meet the challenges Scotland still faces. Yes, we have our ongoing constitutional debate. But, as Labour’s Douglas Alexander was observing in his lecture at the University of Edinburgh last night, that protracted and unresolved debate has tended to foster a “complicitous silence” on all sorts of other debates we should be having – but are not – about what kind of Scotland, socially, politically, culturally and economically, we are trying to build, whatever its constitutional architecture.
It’s not even clear that emerging debates about what kind of independent Scotland the SNP is seeking form a coherent and consistent whole. This week, Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon went to Brussels to give another lecture, to the European Policy Centre. She made clear that “regardless of the direction of UK policy, Scotland is strongly committed to continuing within the EU as an independent nation”.
Taking these words at face value, even if the rest of the UK gets the referendum Cameron has promised on continued membership of the EU and decides to leave, an independent Scotland would, without any such popular endorsement, and after a now-acknowledged accession process post-independence, seek to stay within the EU. But the SNP, with endorsement from its own fiscal commission, also wants Scotland, post-independence, to enter a formal sterling monetary union with the rest of the UK. The loss of the UK’s AAA credit rating does not, as yet, appear to have persuaded the SNP to opt for early euro membership or for launching a standalone Scottish currency.
So, by 2017, say, an independent Scotland could be struggling to reconcile two competing and potentially combustible ambitions: to stay a full member of the EU while the rest of the UK is heading for the exit, but at the same time to cede control of monetary policy – and a large chunk of fiscal policy too – to the central bank of its exiting neighbour.
That certainly gives fresh meaning to the title of Sturgeon’s Brussels lecture: Independence goes with interdependence. But not, perhaps in quite the way she intended. She did say in her lecture that Ukip had never had much traction in Scotland, averaging about 1 per cent of the vote wherever it stood. Well, it only had 3.6 per cent in Eastleigh in 2010. With European elections due here in June 2014 – just a few months before the promised independence referendum – we will doubtless see whether Ukip was an Eastleigh flash-in-the-pan or not.