When I was growing up in the Soviet Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire, as the area was then only half jokingly known as, we right-wingers bitterly called it "Red Monkey" territory, meaning that you could have put a monkey up as a candidate and as long as it was wearing a red rosette, it would be elected to office. Similarly, socialist friends of mine who lived in the Shires just as bitterly termed it "Blue Poodle" country, for identical reasons.
The tragedy was that both descriptions were in some constituencies probably literally true: the tribalist instincts of voters being so strong, and the majorities so overwhelming, that no matter what candidates stood for office, victory or defeat was a foregone conclusion.
"Safe seats" as these are understood to be are the bane of the British political system. True, they are still preferable to the "party list" system that Proportional Representation brings, but only just. What constitutes a safe seat is to a certain extent a matter of interpretation, but there are certainly a lot of them. Even in the Labour landslide of 1997, less than a third of seats changed hands. More normal elections have seen proportionately far fewer seats change.
The large volume of safe seats has been major factor in the rise of the Political Class in recent years. It's members can plan their careers based on the fact that the chances are that a safe seat will come available sooner or later through the death or retirement of a sitting MP. Therefore, they spend their time greasing up the powers that be within a party hierarchy, rather than putting in any spadework amongst the foot-soldiers on the ground. Once at seat does become available, they can then be parachuted in easily enough. Thereafter, they don't need to worry about their constituents beyond the bare minimum of application, leaving them free to spend all their time climbing the greasy pole of office.
There is nothing new, of course, about MP's representing constituencies with with they had little previous physical affiliation, in the sense of actually living there. However, back in the days when local associations had much more autonomy in selecting candidates, it was perhaps more probable that the MP was a better cultural fit, in the sense he or she may come from a background that would allow them to identify with many of the local issues. Traditionally that meant candidates from the industrial heartlands for Labour, and the Shires for the Tories.
Now, however, the rise to predominance of London and it's slick Metropolitan culture has eclipsed the local traditions in both the Labour and Conservative parties. Instead, we have the grotesque spectacle of smooth, young Metropolitan men and women, most of whom have never had a real job and spent their entire lives within the party machine, shoe-horned into safe constituencies with which they have absolutely no cultural affiliation at all. Their contempt for the people they are elected to serve is evident that they so easily disgard their constituents for pastures new once they careers enter decline in a way that was unthinkable to previous generations of politicians. In the New Labour years this meant the cynical absurdity of those well known horny-handed sons of toil Tony Blair representing Sedgefield , Peter Mandelson Hartlepool, David Miliband South Shields and Ed Miliband Doncaster! (A running joke at the time, again sadly half-believable, was that Peter Mandelson walked into a chip shop in Hartlepool and mistook the mushy peas for guacamole.) Three of those four MP's, of course, subsequently resigned mid-term when it suited their needs.
Once he was leader of the Tories, the self-styled "Heir to Blair" took this strategy to even more shallow and more patronising levels with his self-styled "A-list" candidates. Their behaviour has proved just as selfish and egotistical, as the rampant self-publicist Louise Mensch showed with her resignation from her Corby seat.
Not surprisingly, seeing themselves reduced to little more than envelope stuffers, local party memberships have atrophied and political alienation has grown. Early indications that people were sick of being treated so arrogantly came as early as the 2005 election when the official Labour candidate for Blaenau Gwent, Maggie Smith, lost the seat to a Labour party member standing as an independent candidate preferred by the local people. Similarly, in 2010, many of Cameron's "A-listers" failed to be elected.
The advent of UKIP as a serious force in the domestic political scene has applied rocket boosters to these trends. Although is probably true that, thanks to the first-past-the -post electoral system, the rise of UKIP won't be translated into us becoming a major parliamentary force in the short term, what it certainly does do is massively erode the perception of a safe-seat for any of the wings of LibLabCon. Devoid of tribal baggage, UKIP is proving a formidable competitor in those seats where they have been no effective competition for generations. Take the coming by-election in South Shields, a seat that has never elected a Tory MP since the Great Reform Act of 1832. UKIP are unlikely to win the seat, but they are likely to make heavy inroads into the Labour majority. The emergence of a non-tribal contender and four party politics will make it extremely difficult to calculate the effects of voter swings from constituency to constituency.
All that is very bad news indeed for the Political Class, their highly centralised party operations and the rest of their revolting paraphernalia. As constituencies become more marginal and unpredictable, having local candidates and an energised local constituency team who understand the facts on the ground will be become ever more important. Local associations can expect to gain more power from the centre, and authentic local candidates rather than political class robots selected. Thus, the organic link between the local voluntary political party and it's constituency will be restored.
Ironically, in one sense at least, the rise of UKIP is bringing about Cameron's "Big Society".
Sunday, 28 April 2013
UKIP Rise Signifies the End of the "Safe Seat" and with it the Decline of the Political Class.