BY DAVID EYLES
A few thoughts on the Old Bexley and Sidcup by-election on 2nd December 2021:
This constituency, combining Bexley Heath and Sidcup was originally held by Sir Edward Heath from 1950 until 2001. It has always been a Tory stronghold.
Unsurprisingly, the Conservatives won, but with a seriously reduced majority. The late James Brokenshire’s majority of 18,952 has been reduced by Louie French to 4,478. A very low turnout is being attributed to poor weather, but this excuse is a very poor one. For their part, Labour have increased their vote share and they say that this shows that trust is returning to Labour. This is not just balderdash – this is especially egregious Labour Party balderdash.
The turnout was reduced from the 2019 results by 52.9% (46,145 in 2019 vs 21,733 in 2021; a reduction of 24,412 in absolute numbers). By-election turnouts are often reduced from those expected in General Elections, but I suggest that a reduction of this magnitude is due to more than just a bit of wind and rain. The reduction in turnout was massive. This is especially the case given that Bexley is a Tory stronghold and a smart area of older voters. If memory serves, this is the place that the press once dubbed the home of the ‘blue rinse voters’ in Ted Heath’s time – a suggestion that he tended to do very well with old ladies. Both Tory voters and old ladies tend to get out and vote no matter what the weather, so the huge reduction is worthy of a good deal of attention. To put this into a slightly different perspective: the reduction in turnout was greater than the total votes polled by Louie French.
The reduction in votes for Labour was -38.1% from 2019; or in absolute terms, a loss of 4,123 votes. They cannot realistically claim that this shows a restoration in voter trust. It’s just that they haven’t lost as much as the Conservatives. We can consider the 6,711 votes that they actually polled, as the ‘hard core’ of Labour voters in Bexley.
The Conservative vote dropped from 29,786 in 2019, to 11,189 in 2021; a loss of 18,597 votes (or -62.4%). In percentage terms, this is more than double the Labour losses. In absolute terms, Conservative losses are getting on for twice the total Labour votes in a normal year.
Richard Tice (Reform UK) polled 1,432 votes, or 6.6% of the vote share. Whilst he came a creditable third, and the Lib Dems lost their deposit, this suggests to me that Reform are still not cutting through to the electorate very well. His supporters claim that this result is very good for a completely new party, and that may be the case. Perhaps if he had won second place, then there would be a stronger argument that the political tectonic plates are finally shifting. But it does not look like that is happening just yet. Other ‘right wing’ parties polled a total of 571 between them. If these had been combined with Tice’s vote, it would have brought him up to just over 2,000 votes, or 9% of the total vote. This would have been a much more respectable result; and would have been a little more convincing. It shows that the tiny wee parties, if they got their act together, could actually begin to cut through into the general political scene.
But the big story is that the Conservative Party have caused their own voters to stay at home. What has happened is pretty well what I have suggested to others – that Conservative voters will abstain. What has surprised me is just how many stayed at home. This is a massive abstention on the part of those who would normally vote Conservative. It confirms the jungle rumbling on twitter that has become much louder in recent weeks.
The implications for most constituencies is that the Conservative voters will stay at home and Labour will win a large number of seats, by default, simply because of the abstentions by Conservative voters. Labour’s ‘hard core’ (which is much bigger in most constituencies than Bexley’s) will continue to vote. The other parties will split the Conservative vote. This will apply with greater emphasis to the ‘Red Wall’ and Northern constituencies. Even my own constituency of Camborne and Redruth, which is normally a three-horse race, is likely to change hands. Indeed, most of Cornwall’s six constituencies are in a similar position. This suggests to me that almost every constituency outside the Tory strongholds in the Home Counties are now volatile and completely unpredictable.
If I was working in CCHQ, I would be seriously worried. However, given the sort of people they are, doubtless they will merely declare it as a victory and then roll over and fall into their usual intellectual torpor. There may be some hope that the party donors will display a little more intelligence and begin to join up the dots, but somehow, I doubt it.
The more alert amongst the denizens of CCHQ may begin a search for reasons for the Conservative vote loss. Much opprobrium is currently being attached to Boris Johnson; and that theme may continue in the mainstream media for a while yet. Another reason that may be given is that of ‘voter apathy’. This is an old favourite – an excuse that is trotted out fairly regularly. But I contend that the reasons behind the refusal to get out and vote are much deeper and much more serious than ‘voter apathy’ or ‘bad weather’.
We have now undergone nearly two years of executive rule under emergency powers. Increasingly authoritarian measures are almost daily being mooted and sometimes put into effect. Small businesses are going under, savaged by the uncertainty and insane social distancing rules. Society, communities, and even families are splitting down the fault lines set up by unelected, unaccountable committees. Parliament has been ignored, side-lined, and then emasculated. Our democracy appears to be teetering on the brink.
History teaches us that this sort of thing always ends very badly. If you think that sort of thing could not happen here, you need only to look at what is happening now, as I write, in Australia.
We can look at the Bexley results in two ways: the first is that the disgraceful behaviour of the government, and the total disinterest of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition to actually oppose the government, have resulted in a complete political vacuum. Under this model, the voter has nowhere to turn, and so remains at home, disinterested and disgusted. ‘A pox on all your houses’ is what they seem to be saying.
The second possibility is that, thanks to the internet, voters are now better informed than they ever have been. They are now surprisingly knowledgeable about many aspects of epidemiology, immunology, virology and statistics. You may argue that this knowledge in the hands of the uneducated and unwashed, is thoroughly dangerous and should be left to the experts. But there is no doubting that the genie is now out of the bottle. Increasingly, the same group is learning fast about aspects of our constitution and law that they would not otherwise have bothered with. This group is still unsure about many things, but they are gaining confidence.
The one thing they are absolutely certain about is that they will not vote Conservative again.
What we have just seen at Old Bexley and Sidcup is probably a combination of both the foregoing models. The result is not so much ‘voter apathy’ as a latent, but growing, anger. In the context of that latent electoral power, perhaps now is the time for Boris Johnson to be reminded of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s words: ‘I fear we have awoken a sleeping giant’.
David Eyles spent the first twenty years of his career as a quantity surveyor in civil engineering. He started work on the Thames Barrier Project in the mid 1970s and from there moved on to building hardened aircraft shelters in East Anglia – those being the days of a rather warm Cold War. On RAF Lakenheath, he was once observed nearly slithering his mini under the wheels of a taxiing F111 loaded up with tactical nuclear weapons. If nothing else, it would have been one helluva motor insurance claim and a sense of humour loss by the US Air Force. Later, he went to Nigeria for two years to build roads and see first hand what corruption can do to bring down an intrinsically prosperous country. There he had his first experience of seeing British overseas aid being wasted. He returned to the UK and attempted to write a novel, but was instead diverted into bird ringing and spent far too many nights chasing radio tagged Nightjars around Wareham Forest at dangerously high speed. By a mysterious route, David then fell into farming via six worn out commercial hens; and wound up with a flock of 350 Dorset Down ewes and forty Traditional Hereford cattle. He then divorced, changed his life again and arrived in Cornwall to find solace in the pedantry of hard data, wonderful pubs, good people and writing. His other interests include walking; some very poor quality photography; the philosophy of consciousness as it pertains to animals and humans; and a certain amount of politics. David’s writing can be found here.