The local election results in England and Wales (mainly rural England in actual fact) are now in. They are somewhere between a protest vote with little relevance to the next Westminster elections and a complete sea change in British politics. As ever the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. It does, however, illustrate an interesting disconnect between the main parties and significant portions of the electorate.
The first thing to remember is that these elections are not national elections. When one looks at the map of England it looks as though almost the whole country has been voting: that is not in actual fact correct. Whilst the majority of the landmass is affected by these county elections it is a much smaller proportion of the electorate. England has some areas with unitary authorities – mainly the cities which are in general more Labour supporting. Then it has the counties which themselves usually have two tiers of local government. It is the larger of these tiers – the county councils which have been being elected. The county councils are in the main the large rural areas of England. Sometimes we in Northern Ireland forget just how much of the landmass of England is rural (sometimes I think some of the English forget – more on that anon). Yorkshire is about the size of Northern Ireland and although it has large cities (Leeds, Sheffield, Hull etc.) it also has huge areas of rural population. Take the second largest county – Lincolnshire: it has an area of 2687 square miles: almost half that of Northern Ireland (albeit it the council area is slightly smaller 2286 sq. miles).
These huge geographical areas then of countryside and small and medium sized towns (large towns by NI standards) have been what has been voting. Many of these counties are traditionally as Tory as the day is long. Going back to Lincolnshire: prior to this Thursday the Tories had 61 of the 77 seats (they lost 24).
Possibly the easiest way to look at the elections is to look at the four parties and how they did and then think about what these voters of the shires want.
They did well and in addition to the council elections they held David Milliband’s old seat of South Shields relatively easily along with the mayoral elections in Doncaster and North Tyneside (both times unseating Tories). However, it is highly debatable whether Labour did enough to win in 2015. Whilst their strategists claim they did well enough, the Tories point to Michael Foot making similar gains prior to the 1983 general election. The reality is that it is almost impossible to know. The places up for election were not sufficiently Labour to make a proper assessment. That said Blair in his pomp was able to make inroads even into the shires. It is said that Blair had a sort of epiphany when he saw an upper working class / lower middle class man washing his car and realised that that sort of person – later called Mondeo man- was the sort of person he needed to attract. On Thursday Mondeo man was not voting but his rural cousin Landrover Freelander man was. It seems that Labour and its leadership especially have little understanding of how to attract this specific voting dynamic with which Blair had some modest success. He lost some of that with the fox hunting bill. Not that Freelander man is a horse riding toff but somehow that bill and the Countryside Alliance’s campaign helped make working and lower middle class rural voters feel that Labour was a metropolitan elite with no interest in them. An extremely simplistic analogy might be with the way poor southern state whites who had no slaves opposed the end of slavery in the prelude to the American Civil War / War Between the States / War of Northern Aggression (I know the American Civil War is much more complicated that that but the analogy of an issue of little direct importance but important as a symbol has some similarities).
They did remarkably less dreadfully than they should have done. It needs to be remembered just how badly the Liberal Democrats are doing in the national polls. After the heady days of Clegg mania the junior partners in the coalition have become a laughing stock in by elections. Where once they tended to do well in by elections as part of a protest vote they are now routinely pushed into fourth place sometimes into the levels of support enjoyed by the neo Nazis, independents and Loony candidates. In Eastleigh and to a lesser extent in these county council elections, however, they managed to demonstrate that they, like many unpleasant infections, once in there are difficult to get rid of. What these elections again show though is that trying to keep the sorts of levels of support they had at the 2010 election is a highly, almost impossibly, ambitious goal. That for a party which saw involvement in the coalition as a stepping stone to greater successes is remarkable. That no one in the party seems able to come up with a strategy and that Clegg’s leadership remains relatively secure after the semi success of Eastleigh is even more remarkable.
Possibly the main problem for the Liberal Democrats is that the disconnect between the politics of the leadership of the party and the politics of its activists let alone voters is greater in the Liberal Democrats than for any other party. The median Liberal Democrat voter tends to be much more economically left wing than the party hierarchy. This has been known about for years: the Liberal Democrats under Clegg are actually Liberal in the old fashioned sense of the term – a laissez faire liberalism of the school of Lord John Russell rather than that of David Lloyd George. The Orange Book written by senior LDs could have come from a right wing libertarian think tank and even proposed large scale part privatisation of the NHS. The social liberalism of the Liberal Democrat leadership (and the lust for power) has held the support of some of their activists but it is not especially likely to appeal to the shire counties or even those of the southwest. The fact that in the southwest the yokels drink cider rather than beer does not make them raging social liberals. The tuition fees débâcle may be becoming a bit less of a live issue but the ongoing economic right wing, socially left wing position of the Liberal Democrats and the growing realisation of this by the electorate makes the LDs the most out of touch with their core electorate of any British political party.
The Tories are the big losers in this election. Whichever way one looks at it they have been hit and hit hard in some of their heartlands. There is no doubt that much of this is a protest vote and that much of it will return to them at the next election – most of those shire MPs need not panic. The main problem seems to be what the Tories can do about these results. Their leadership persona is highly problematic. The party leadership is seen in many of the shires as an out of touch socially liberal urban ultra elite: remember this is the poshest cabinet since the Edwardian era. Furthermore Cameron seems endlessly fond of promoting cronies of the same social class as himself. Cameron may claim to have been the heir to Blair but Blair managed, despite his relatively privileged background, to avoid the appearance of an out of touch member of the minor aristocracy who decided to become Prime Minister because he thought he would be good at it. Cameron seems unable to project an understanding of the middle class strivers he claims to want to support.
The solution for the Tories woes has repeatedly been suggested to be to move to the right socially. There is certainly some currency in that suggestion. Those in the shires are probably not especially homophobic but the obsession with gay marriage at a time when there are so many other pressing economic and social issues looks odd. It jars even more because it is obviously part of the project to “detoxify” the Tory brand and “broaden its appeal” which Freelander man sees as simply trying to win plaudits from the urban metropolitan elite and media. Cameron may have a seat in Oxfordshire and a house in Chipping Norton but he is very definitely not of the country squire let alone the rural working class. He may pass Freelander man on the way to Chipping Norton but has no idea of his concerns.
UKIP has done spectacularly well. One needs to remember that they took 25% of the vote: an almost unbelievable result. This gives them a bridgehead in all sorts of places. It also, however opens their politicians up to greater scrutiny. UKIP may not be a one man band but few of his underlings could possibly have Nigel Farage’s sureness of touch. From his smoking, beer drinking persona to his refusal to have a standard political image Farage has a persona and an image: that of the antipolitician politician. Many of his acolytes may be exposed to be less sure footed, of mediocre quality as politicians, having unpleasant political views or even simply being mad. This is much more likely now that they have some level of political exposure and even power. A further problem is the relatively uniform spread of UKIP support throughout the UK. In a first past the post system UKIP could end up coming second or third in seat after seat and yet take few or even none.
More than anything this election demonstrates the disconnect between very many of the English electorate and those who wish to govern them. The liberal elites obsession with social liberalism is frequently met with incomprehension from many in the shires. This is not because these people are stupid, bigoted or ill educated. It is because many simply do not see why socially liberal ginger issues are important. When in the depths of a recession / non recovery of greater magnitude than anything since the war, obsessing about the importance of gay marriage just seems madly irrelevant: even madder than the odd behaviour of some UKIPers.
It would be wrong, however, for either the Tories or UKIP to assume, however, that these shire voters all want ultra right policies. Immigration from Eastern Europe is a problem in some parts of the shires especially the east of England where large numbers of immigrants are employed in agriculture. The problem is that these people are often dreadfully paid and housed in awful conditions yet due to the grinding poverty in their home countries they are better off than they would be at home. This then prices local people out of the market as seasonal agricultural labourers. Before there was immigration better wages had to be paid: the turnips did not all rot in the fields of Norfolk in the 1990s. Despite the above much research shows that the English are not especially racist. Hence, the solution is probably far from a simplistic right wing immigration policy. More relevant would be to impose the standards of minimum wages and appropriate accommodation on those running the supply of agricultural manual labour. That would be a mechanism by which mainstream politicians could tackle a major issue for rural working class communities without pandering to racism. It does of course leave unaddressed the problem of absolute freedom of movement and benefit tourism from within the EU.
If some of the solutions sought by those in rural England are socially right wing there are also plenty of left wing populist issues which the mainstream parties especially the coalition and even Labour are unwilling to touch. There remains a considerable constituency of people who regard railway privatisation as having been a disaster. Rail prices have gone up dramatically all in the name of making the railways pay. This at times seem as short sighted as Beeching. One could easily argue the environmental, societal and economic benefits of major public investment in local railways and not just HS2 which again seems to be for the benefit mainly of urban dwellers. Pricing people off the roads is less popular and less effective than attracting and incentivising them onto public transport by making it local, cheap and pleasant.
The environmental issues bring people back to issues like global warming which with successive hard winters and washout summers have lost much of their resonance. Again the urban elite may worry about the Antarctic sea ice and explain that climate change and weather patterns are not related but the simple fact is that most people outside that elite have more pressing concerns. One might even produce a truly radical plan and suggest that energy security leads one to think that we should generate electricity from a major resource present in the UK. Mainland GB is practically made of coal and yet for supposed economic reasons we stopped taking it out of the ground to burn in the power stations of the likes of the Trent Valley leaving us dependent largely on imported gas. Enviromentalism now tells we must not burn coal to make power but as mentioned above fewer people worry about the Greenland icecaps than did a decade ago.
The above are deliberately grossly simplified issues: they illustrate, however, that the political consensus of the current three parties is highly convergent. This is a position Farage has mercilessly exploited. He is handicapped, however, by the fact that he seems personally fairly right wing and his party even further to the right. This along with the amateurism of many of his members may well preclude UKIP making serious inroads at Westminster. These are also issues which the Tories under their current leadership seem unlikely to be able to progress and are the opposite of what the Liberal Democrats want.
There is a party which could exploit an economically left wing and socially more right wing analysis. It is of course Labour. Many in Blue Labour have been advocating this already: It seems unclear if Milliband can or will listen. As has been mentioned before of course there is one area where an economically left wing, socially relatively right wing set of policies have repeatedly triumphed for Labour. If one wants to see a successful political application of the sorts of policies closer to that of the median English shire voter oddly one could do worse than look at the Labour Party of South Wales. The answer to getting Freelander man’s vote may lie in the Welsh valleys.