A few random thoughts about the Newark by-election

Reading the runes from a by-election result is always problematic. The local nature of the event means that it’s hard to draw national trends, while protest votes and tightly focussed campaigns by all parties have an effect that won’t be present at a general election.

That said, who are the winners and losers from Newark? In many ways, none of the parties will be completely satisfied. Some, though, have lost more than most.

Starting with the Conservatives, they obviously have the most to celebrate since they won (or, rather, held) the seat. This is an achievement in itself, since the Tories haven’t previously won a by-election while in government for 25 years. It’s still a heavily reduced majority, which would be bad news if extrapolated nationally. But, overall, this is a reasonably satisfying result for CCHQ.

For UKIP, the glass is closer to half full. A huge surge in support lifted them into second place, but they were still nowhere near causing a genuine upset. The confident pre-election predictions from the UKIP camp that they were at least going to run the Tories closely, if not snatch the seat, have turned out to be rather more hubristic than they would like. Possibly more worryingly for UKIP is that their percentage of the vote was down compared to the nearest equivalent area in the European elections. It’s hard to avoid the sense that they’ve already peaked.

Labour, on the other hand, will definitely not be happy. Despite brave attempts to spin the result by talking of a tactical switch to the Tories to keep UKIP out, the reality is that for the main opposition party to lose ground in a mid-term by-election does not bode well for their general election hopes. Labour would have held on to second place if they’d at least retained their voters from the 2010 general election, and even a smallish increase would have made the Conservative majority uncomfortably close. Losing vote share and dropping to third place, even in a highly tactical election, is a bad result whichever way you look at it.

No amount of spin, though, can mask the disaster which befell the Liberal Democrats. Falling from a close third to a distant sixth, behind both the Greens and an independent, and shedding nearly 90% of their vote along the way is about as bad as it can possibly get. Tactical voting may well have played a part, but only a part.

Results for the other candidates were all much of a muchness. Independent Paul Baggaley came fourth, beating both the Greens and the Lib Dems, but none of the other minor parties and by-election bandwagon jumpers got more than a handful of votes. The Greens got a thousand votes, give or take a few, but a semi-rural seat in the Midlands is never going to be natural territory for their brand of metropolitan angst.

Stepping back from the individual parties, though, the overall voting pattern is worth looking at. The Conservatives lost around 10,000 votes, labour lost 5,000 or thereabouts and the Lib Dems lost 9,000. Meanwhile, UKIP gained 8,000. Given that the minor parties don’t amount to anything much in this consituency, that’s more votes lost than gained. So where did they all go?

The answer, of course, is that many of them were lost to non-voters. The by-election turnout was only 52.6%, compared to 71.4% in the general election. In 2010, the non-voters amounted to around 29% of the electorate, which is more than those who voted for second-placed Labour but a long way short of the victorious Conservative candidate. In the by-election, the “I don’t have an opinion” party made up 48% of the electorate. That’s the biggest proportion, by quite a large margin.

Another thing worth noting here is that if Labour had held on to all their votes from the general election, and picked up most of the lost Lib Dem votes – something which is not an unreasonable ambition – they would have won this seat. With UKIP splitting the right of centre vote, and the Lib Dem collapse removing the main left-wing competitor to Labour, Labour should have been quids in. But it didn’t happen that way.

To a certain extent, then, a significant number of voters seem to have been sufficiently fed up with the three main parties to desert them, but were not willing to vote UKIP in protest. That’s probably more true of Labour and the Lib Dems than the Conservatives, but even the Tories lost more votes than UKIP gained. That loss of voters to apathy is probably the thing that will concern the Conservative and Labour leaderships the most, since if there’s one thing that UKIP voters are not, it’s apathetic.

As we saw in the European elections, a low turnout benefits UKIP. Both David Cameron and Ed Miliband need to find ways to reconnect with former supporters who have simply given up on politics rather than switched to another party. And that is probably a more pressing need than attempting to appeal to UKIP voters.

Cereal killers

There’s been much activity in the Twittersphere regarding the suggestion by the Shadow Health Secretary, Andy Burnham, that food manufacturers should be prohibited from selling foods with too much sugar. A lot of these are breakfast foods, giving rise to a number of witty comments including the one which forms my headline. Other tweeters are up in arms at what they see as typical Labour statism wanting to take responsibility away from individuals.

I’m no fan of Labour’s authoritarian approach to legislation, obviously, and neither is anyone with any genuine grasp of the importance of personal freedom. The mainstream libertarian left is to be found mainly in the Liberal Democrats these days, and the libertarian right is split between the Conservatives and UKIP (although all these parties have their share of authoritarians as well). So it’s no surprise that the more thoughtful responses to Burnham’s proposals come from these groups.

Having said that, I think there is a genuine problem here. One of the problems with libertarianism as a political principle (and something that has to be honestly faced by anyone who would call themselves a libertarian) is that there are, quite simply, too many people who lack either the ability or the desire to act in rational self-interest. And these people do matter, not least because their self-destructive tendencies affect the rest of us. There’s plenty of evidence that children who grow up with a poor diet are significantly more likely to become net recipients of state spending as adults.

So, what’s the solution? Should we be banning Coco Pops, and refusing planning permission for McDonalds to open near schools (as has been suggested by Diane Abbot, Shadow Minister for Public Health)?

Personally, I don’t think so. I’m not arguing that legislation is never the answer; I think that there may be cases in extremis where it’s the most practical solution to the problem of people being incapable of acting rationally. But I don’t think it’s the case here. I’m open to persuasion otherwise, but it seems to me that this particular proposal is merely addressing one particular symptom rather than the cause.

What does bother me, though, is the dishonesty inherent in the proposals. Blame the naughty manufacturers for making things that people want to buy, and the naughty retailers for selling them. I’ve said that people’s inability to act rationally is a problem for libertarians, but it’s an even bigger problem for socialist authoritarians. Because authoritarianism says, in effect, to the people it regulates “We don’t trust you, we think you’re evil or stupid or otherwise incapable of getting it right without our help”. Now, I’m actually quite comfortable with saying that to some people, because, frankly, that really does describe a significant proportion of the population. But for Labour, that’s electoral suicide, because nearly everyone who falls into that category also happens to vote for them.

That means Labour politicians are caught in something of a catch 22. They know that the reason there is a problem is because a lot of people are stupid. But they also know that a lot of those people vote for them. So they can’t openly come out and say “We’re doing this for your own good, because if we don’t then you’re just going to be more and more of a burden on an already overloaded welfare state”. Instead, they have to try to make it seem as if the fault lies with those who make and sell foods which, if eaten to excess, can be harmful. And that’s dishonest, because there’s absolutely nothing wrong at all with sugary breakfast cereals if eaten as part of a balanced diet. In fact, when it comes to healthy eating, the evidence points in the other direction: having no breakfast at all is worse for you than having too much.

The other reason it’s dishonest is because it tries to shuffle the debate away from the real, underlying issue. What do we do about people who can’t, or won’t, make rational decisions about things like diet, employment, parenting and finance? We cannot solve those problems by pretending that everyone with obese children, or who is hugely in debt to a payday loan company, is a victim of predatory capitalism. The reality is that if everybody made rational decisions, these companies would either go bust or start selling something else. Which is how the free market works.

Maybe we do need to regulate food manufacturers, or short term lenders. I’d actually be more in favour of regulating the latter than the former, mainly because there would be less collateral damage to those who are capable of running their own lives. But, either way, any justification for regulation has to start from the fact that it’s only necessary because people buying the products are dumb, not because those selling them are evil. And Labour’s attempt to make it sound as though it’s the latter merely demonstrates the moral bankruptcy of their politics.

Empowerment, and other ways in which nanny knows best

There was an article in yesterday’s Times by former cabinet minister James Purnell in which he sets out his vision for what he calls the “empowerment” of the British people. Quite apart from the fact that, as The Guardian points out, his sudden embrace of empowerment and opposition to statism seems distinctly at odds with his opinions when he was a member of the government, what he’s proposing wouldn’t actually empower us at all.

For a start, one of his suggestions is that we abolish catchment areas for schools:

In schools, for example, are we happy to have replaced selection by ability with selection by mortgage? What power is there for parents who can’t afford to move close to a good school?

Real power would mean abolishing catchment areas and having pupils apply two or three years in advance. Oversubscribed schools could then expand, or new providers start up. Conversely, undersubscribed schools could be closed or taken over. Parents could be guaranteed one of their top choices.

The obvious answer to that is that is no, I’m not happy for selection by ability to be replaced with selection by mortgage. I’d prefer the system to take ability into account when matching children with appropriate schools. But if we’re not going to do that, then it seems to me that removing catchment areas would be a distinctly negative step.

This time last year, I was unemployed after being made redundant. I found another job, but that involved moving to a different part of the country. If I had to apply years in advance to get my daughter into a local school, I wouldn’t have been able to do that. I can only conclude that James Purnell doesn’t believe that social and career mobility should apply to parents. Maybe I could have swallowed that, as I lived in a decent house in a reasonably nice area before I moved, but what of the young couple who having managed to get a foothold onto the housing ladder, now want to start a family? According to Purnell’s logic, they should choose where they want to live within the first few years of their firstborn’s life and then stay there until their youngest has finished 6th form. It’s hard to think of something which is less empowering than that.

Anyway, enough of education. Let’s think about the state. Here’s another pearl of Purnell wisdom:

Because we were pro-reform, new Labour was often seen as anti-State

Now, I’m not too sure how to break this to him, but I can assure Mr Purnell that new Labour has most definitely not been seen as anti-state. Given the massive expansion of the state under Tony Blair, such a claim is simply risible. ID cards, CCTV, RIPA, bans on hunting, smoking and peaceful protest – it’s hard to think of a new Labour initiative that hasn’t increased the state’s reach.

It seems, though, that although Purnell wants us to be empowered, he doesn’t think we can cope with it on our own.  We need a reciprocal society, but

That won’t be achieved just by talking about it, as David Cameron does. It will be achieved through organisation — the founding skill of the Labour movement.

and

people need to be organised so that they can shape change, and resist the arbitrary market and the unaccountable State. Workers need to be organised so they can resist being bullied or undervalued. Communities need to be organised so that people can shape public services and resist antisocial behaviour.

I’m not quite sure how James Purnell thinks that writing newspaper columns is going to acheive more than “talking about it”, but his overall message is clear: We poor plebs can’t manage anything unless we’re organised. And who’s going to be doing the organising? Well, the Labour movement has the skills, apparently.

Purnell may possibly be blinkered enough to think that a Labour government isn’t going to want to be in control of anything organised by the Labour movement, but I rather doubt that many other people will share his rose-tinted optimism.

If it were just a case of a politican making fatuous comments, though, I wouldn’t care much about Purnell’s article. It would be just as easy to find statements from commentors on the right of the political spectrum that are equally unworkable or foolish. But elsewhere in the article, Purnell moves into territory that goes beyond laughable and into the genuinely scary. Namechecking American writer and activist Saul Alinsky, Purnell says that

Alinsky got this right when he said that power is not a means to an end — it is the end.

I’m not going to criticise Alinsky here, because I have no idea whether this quote has been taken out of context and Alinsky may well have meant something by it other than what it first appears to say (or, for that matter, if Alinsky actually said it like that, since Purnell doesn’t enclose it in speech marks). But Purnell is quoting it here without any context other than his own words, and therefore we have to assume that he means it to be taken as it seems. And, if so, then he is propounding a doctrine that isn’t merely wrong, it’s bordering on evil.

Power is not, never will be and never has been an end in itself for anyone other than those who seek to impose their power over others. Robert Mugabe, Kim Jong Il and the Burmese generals may well believe that power is an end in itself. But even Machiavelli wouldn’t go so far as to say that power is an end in itself – to him, it was a means to ensure that the prince could rule in peace. In a democratic society, power is a means to greater prosperity, health and happiness. It may well be that the underprivileged need some more power in order to attain those ends. But power for the sake of power alone is, in the end, not really power at all. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? James Purnell, it seems, would like us all to be able to answer that question from personal experience.