Friday 13 November 2009

Whatever happened to the People's Smeaton?

Congratulations to Willie Bain on his victory for Labour in the Glasgow North-East by-election.

But another less noted aspect of the result may offer a perplexing democratic paradox: what if they threw a populist political insurgency and nobody came?

The Jury Team didn't have a primary in Glasgow - but they did invite an archetypal extraordinary local hero in John Smeaton to carry the "politics without parties" banner of the political independents.

Although he was an outsider, Ladbrokes initially made him third favourite to win at 8-1, no doubt reflecting that Smeaton's anti-terrorist heroics and Scottish Sun column probably mean he has a higher public profile than any other by-election candidate for several years.

Yet Smeaton finished 8th in a field of thirteen candidates, with 258 votes (1.2% of the poll), trailing seven party candidates in the poll, though he defeated two of the three far left candidates and three other independents.

This was despite the backing of Martin Bell in his white suit:

Martin Bell urged the people of Glasgow North East to ‘rise up against the tyranny of the political class’ and called for ‘an insurrection by the people’. He said: ‘John Smeaton is the epitome of a local hero. Thursday is an opportunity for democracy. We can break the mould.’

Smeaton's campaign was further boosted by the backing of television personality and astrologer Russell Grant too, and perhaps rather more by his engagement in several local community projects.

Despite Smeaton's broad popularity, and what seems to have been a creditable campaign, the candidate acknowledged doubts about whether he had the political knowledge to represent the constituency in the House of Commons.

That may be a downside of the "outsider" appeal.


My contribution to ippr's recent think-a-thon collection on political renewal discussed how the rather lazy anti-politics which presents itself as the obvious solution is part of the problem for those who want to see serious reform.

There was a classic example in TV comedy producer John Lloyd's advocacy of the Open Up campaign for primary elections in last Saturday's Guardian.

At first glance, I thought this section was offering a satirical parody of 'why oh why is the country going to the dogs' sentiment of Daily Mail columnists.

If we're not fighting foreign wars that nobody supports, we're fighting off automated messages from anonymous call centres and, when we turn on the television to escape, there's nothing much worth watching. Doctors don't run hospitals any more, the army doesn't get the kit it needs, bureaucrats tell teachers what they can and can't teach.

One of the reasons why we have come to this is because the ruling class – not just political but corporate and financial – have a vested interest in keeping things as they are ... What can we do? Well, here is a practical suggestion. You can lend your support to Open Up.

After re-reading it a couple of times, I concluded that it probably wasn't. Lloyd's piece does indeed seem to be arguing that primary elections for MPs would end cold calling and sort out some much better telly for us all.

We have given a good deal of space debating the pros and cons of primaries. Progress have argued a cogent case that they could prove an important way to revive engagement in political parties, while others disagree. The Open Up campaign makes a rather different case, wanting primaries to dissolve party politics on the grounds that it locks out the democratic heroes that the voters want. As Lloyd wrote:

Our aim is simple: to get all political parties to adopt the system of primaries, as pioneered by the Tories. This way, ordinary people – or perhaps we should say extraordinary people – have a chance of standing for election, giving us a genuine choice for the first time.

But there is a mystery here: why on earth do Open Up want to use the dreadful old parties for their democratic revolution of throwing off the tyranny of party and the whips?

Shouldn't the voters simply revolt against the hated parties at the ballot box?

That was the theory of the Jury Team, which had the more coherent idea of running anti-party candidates on an anti-party ticket, rather than under the party colours of those they seek to overthrow.

I have argued before that it is an an unlikely project, but it is an honest one to put to the voters to decide on.

Independents may find it difficult to win through in a General Election when many voters are considering a choice of national government, while an anti-party party would have no shared manifesto, and where the national campaign and media coverage will particularly matter. (Though independents have won Tatton in 1997, with major parties backing Martin Bell, and Wyre Forest in 2001 and 2005, where the LibDems stood down and backed the independent, and Blaneau Gwent where an independent beat a full slate of major party candidates).

But the Great British by-election is made for democratic insurgencies, with the opportunity for candidates to come from nowhere at all to win seats. Take the SDP's victory in Glasgow Hillhead in 1982 from nowhere, or the LibDem surge from third place with 10% of the vote to win Brent East in 2003.

Despite Lloyd's claim that open primaries are needed for voters to "have a genuine choice" for the first time, there is little reason to think the voters in the by-election did not have a wide choice in the 13-candidate field in Glasgow yesterday.

It is quite difficult to think of a significant strand of political opinion not represented on the ballot paper, with even the socialist left entering into the highly consumerist spirit of offering three different "Trot" varieties in the left-of-Labour space.

Campaigners for anti-party 'clean up politics' campaigns often present the voters as sheep who will vote for any candidate with the right rosette.

But the Glasgow East election had showed how even rock-solid safe seats can fall in by-elections.

Perhaps the truth is that voters chose Labour, the SNP, the Tories, Solidarity, the LibDems and the Greens - and even the racist BNP - know what the party stands for and why, and share the politics and values of their chosen party and candidate.

We shall see whether Esther Rantzen does better in her high-profile bid to represent Luton South.

Because if "the people" want independent candidates, all they have to do is vote for them.

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