What the media isn’t telling you about the Heywood And Middleton and Clacton elections

On checking the news and Twitter this morning, I’d kind of expected the country to have been overrun by frog-eyed pint-swilling overlords to whom we must all bow. Now, I’m going to outright assume that nobody who reads this blog is particularly interested in having UKIP in charge because I have low expectations of pretty much everything, but they’re not that low, so I have good news for you: don’t panic. 

The media construct narratives surrounding elections. They do this because they need something to report in a 24 hour news cycle, and stories get blown up and spun, despite the fact they’re not really all that true. So, as they treat this as a storming victory for the petty little racists they’ve been building up over the last year or so, that’s not actually the case. Here’s a few things the media conveniently haven’t bothered mentioning much in their quest to create narratives.

UKIP are really bad news for the Tories and quite good news for Labour

Let’s take a look at the Heywood and Middleton results. I’ve made a little graph of vote share, comparing 2010 with this by-election. I’m only showing the parties that were in both elections.image


Now, the media are very fixated on the massive jump UKIP have made, but what interests me is what’s happened to the share of the vote for the other three parties. The Lib Dems and Tories have lost what is technically referred to as a massive fuckload of votes. This election is an unmitigated disaster for them (lol). See, they’ve had their go in government and haven’t satisfied anyone, so the right-wingers have decided to vote for this shiny new party instead. Meanwhile, Labour’s share of the vote has held. It’s even risen ever so slightly, for the first time since 1997. I have seen this election treated as TOTAL WIPEOUT for Labour, when in fact, it’s a perfectly cromulent outcome for them. You see, this is a quirk of our electoral system. It’s how first past the post works. You only get one vote. In 2010, the sort of people who don’t vote Labour spread their votes about, while in 2014 they’ve all gone for the same bunch. And this is at the expense of the Tories and Lib Dems, not at Labour’s expense.

Of course, the Labour Party will take this as an excuse to go further right and more authoritarian, but don’t let that fool you. They’re doing that because they want to, not because it makes electoral sense.

Of course people voted Douglas Carswell in Clacton

Douglas Carswell was the MP for Clacton. Douglas Carswell still is the MP for Clacton. For whatever reason, they like him as an MP. This would be a tedious non-story if he hadn’t changed parties. “MP gets re-elected” doesn’t exactly sell newspapers. In 2010, Carswell was elected as a Tory MP on a 53% share of the vote. In 2014, he was re-elected on a 59.7% share of the vote. Meanwhile, once again, we see the Tory share of the vote tumbling–it’s more than halved.

Usually by-elections happen when the incumbent isn’t there: maybe they’re dead (like in Heywood and Middleton), maybe they were forced to resign due to fiddling expenses, maybe they were just fucking done with politics. It’s very rare that they’re still around to contest their seat. Before Clacton, by-elections triggered to ratify an MP switching parties have only happened six times: Merton, Mitcham and Morden in 1982; Lincoln in 1973; Preston in 1929; Kingston-Upon-Hull in 1926; the Isle of Wight in 1904; and Orkney and Shetland in 1902. In five out of these six instances, the electorate voted for the incumbent MP. In the other case, MM&M, we saw a similar pattern to Heywood and Middleton: the vote was split between two similar parties (Labour and SDP; the incumbent had defected from the former to the latter) while the Conservative vote held allowing them to get in.

It just goes to show: people really do vote for the person rather than the party.

The media manufactured this whole thing

Our democracy is very much controlled by the media. The media pretty much invented UKIP, because at the moment UKIP can give media owners what they want. In 2010, we saw something similar with the Lib Dems. The more the media blart on about how UKIP are a credible party, the more credible they become. This is why people bothered voting for them at all. At present, UKIP best represent media owners: like media owners, they’re a bunch of terrible old rich white men. So of course the media has a peculiar hard-on for UKIP.

Furthermore, journalists are bored because elections are boring. To make them interesting, you need a narrative, and the novelty value of UKIP is currently very exciting to them, especially because UKIP love talking to journalists and mugging for the cameras. It makes journalists’ jobs easier, so of course they’ll regurgitate UKIP press releases.

Unlike the Lib Dems in 2010, though, we’re unlikely to see a Tory-UKIP coalition in our future, because UKIP are wiping them out at elections. Instead, I predict we’ll see destabilisation of Tory safe seats, which will likely guarantee a Labour government in 2015.

Representative democracy is a shambles

If you’ve made it this far, you’ve probably noticed that this whole system is flawed. Elections are easily influenced, and our first past the post voting system makes it even harder for the will of the people to truly be heard. These by-elections–and the media analysis thereof–lay this bare. If you believe in voting, you’re lumbered with the possibility of having to root for UKIP to keep the Tories out (it splits the vote, remember?). If you want to campaign for electoral reform, you might have an issue where suddenly small parties like UKIP do become a real problem, as well as the nice smaller parties like the Greens getting to have a go. There’s also the option of becoming an anarchist, which is working all right for me, except for the having to organise with some awful people sometimes. However you choose to navigate this territory, be aware: everything is broken. The rot is deep.

The thing we really need to worry about is not whether UKIP win any elections or not, but the fact that our society is so riddled with racism that all of the major parties are spouting nastiness similar to UKIP, and a lot of people seem to genuinely believe it. This is the root that we need to fight, and it won’t be won at the ballot boxes.

12 thoughts on “What the media isn’t telling you about the Heywood And Middleton and Clacton elections”

  1. A one-time psephologist writes: “Don’t panic!” (Oh…you already said that…).

    If you put the results at present through the various number-crunch thingummies, then the outlook at the next election is still not bad (though not necessarily so rosy for Labour as you predict.

    Lib Dems are likely to hang on to around 20-30 seats, whatever. Greens may be up to 2!

    Meanwhile, unless they can seriously break the 18% barrier, UKIP are unlikely to end up with a single seat.

    The exception is Tory defectors. Tories who defect between now and the General Election may well hang on as KIPPERS…so tis rather more likely that UKIP will have Carswell in parliament next time than Farage.

    Which leaves the Labour Tory split…not convinced yet that Labour will do it…though they might by a narrow margin.

    Rather more confident that they will have more seats than the Tories, so that is mostly positive.


  2. People in Clacton didn’t vote for UKIP in Clacton. They voted Douglas Carswell because they KNOW him. (which IMO is ignorant) Shouldn’t they have said “I’m backing UKIP” ?

    1. It’s a quirk of our electoral system. The spirit is you vote for the person, which is what they did in Clacton.

      I doubt he’ll actually perform much differently as a UKIP MP than a Tory; there’s a hair’s breadth between the parties.

  3. Great blogpost, although I feel that “UKIP are really bad news for the Tories and quite good news for Labour” is possibly over-simplifying matters. In Heywood & Middleton, if the Ashcroft poll is accurate, Labour lost a not-insignificant amount of voters to UKIP, and its vote share was only maintained by former Lib Dem voters replacing them. Replicate that pattern in constituencies where there aren’t many Lib Dem voters in the first place (e.g. Dudley North, Walsall North) and you can see where Labour may have a problem.

    1. Heh don’t get me started on polls. Polls are a huge part of the media frenzy. Again, echoes of the Lib Dems in 2010

  4. The unspoken assumption is that the voters in a by-election vote in the same proportion as in a general election; turnout in by-elections is usually much lower than general elections.

    Here, in N Ireland, we have STV for local elections, but first-past-the-post for Westminster. We don’t have (mostly) a choice between Tories, Labour, LibDems as you do. And if we Irish can work STV without difficulty, why can’t the rest of you?

  5. Reckless is different though and so is Rochester. Reckless is no Carswell and really he is a very dislikable figure. He may win but if the Tories see the kind of vote swing there we will IMHO see some more jump before the 6 month rule comes in.

    1. Yes. This is the real fear. My sense is that UKIP will resile twixt now and May 2015, and not score (m)any seats.

      But I’ve been political a long time. Was a Liberal and a Liberal parliamentary candidate in the 1980’s, and still remember those brief thrilling days when the SDP emerged fully formed from the bosom of Labour.

      Forget the precise politics. They brought 4 senior cabinet members and 21 MP’s and…a thing mostly forgotten now…I remember the polls of spring 1981 that put the Alliance on 43% …a level that ALL our current parties can only dream of.

      Labour appeared finished. The Tories little better. The long awaited realignment of the left seemed under way. What could go wrong?

      Oh yes…the Falklands. We watched in horror as Thatcher leapt back from hated and likely one term Prime Minister to national war leader and hero. Watched 43% slowly slide back to 26% and, in the end, nothing changed. 😦

  6. does it really matter if the labour is going to come out of rochdale by election victorious/marginally enhanced votes or facing a threat in the general election?
    a party whose leader’s parents were “illegal” asylum seekers (a term introduced by the last labour gov and subsequently challenged in the court), its shadow justice secretary is a son of an unskilled immigrant labourer yet panders so much to the xenophobic sentiment prevalent in britain. media is enjoying a fight between major parties for a top place in racially oriented policies. perhaps ebola becomes a good justifier for border control

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