Mark Steyn hasn’t asked about my thoughts on the significance of the Norwich North special election in Britain last week, perhaps because his last inquiry on the Euro-elections elicited about 1,800 words from me. This prudent lack of curiosity won’t deter me, however, because the results are interesting.
The headlines are: Massive 17 percent swing from Labour to the Tories. Cameron on course for a Commons majority of more than 150. Though these stories almost certainly overstate the likely Tory majority in an election that must be held in the next year, they are basically accurate. But they also conceal a much more worrying picture for the Cameron Conservatives — and largely confirm my earlier analysis of the Euro-elections.
Consider, first, Labour’s performance. Its vote collapsed from 21,097 to 6,243. Okay, turnout fell too — from 61 percent to 45 percent. But that’s small comfort to Gordon Brown, since Labour’s share of that reduced total fell from 45 percent to a staggering 18 percent. That’s a loss of 27 percentage points. No amount of spinning can make that look good.
So how did the Tories do? Well, their vote fell too — from 15,638 to 13,591. But their share of the reduced total rose somewhat, from 33 percent to 39 percent. Even in a Labour-leaning marginal, that was enough to give them victory. And they were presumably delighted that the third-party Lib-Dems, whose votes their national political strategy is targeting, did badly by every standard, losing about 3,000 votes and 2 percentage points of their vote share.
If the Tories’ two main national opponents lost between them roughly 16,000 votes and saw their combined vote share drop by almost 30 percentage points, where did all those votes go? Usually the chief opposition party would pick up a vast number of votes if the incumbent government suffered a collapse of Labour’s scale. So why did the Tories lose actual votes and boost their share by no more than 6 percentage points?
Well, as to actual votes, many voters simply stayed home. That has happened increasingly in British elections, which used to get a turnout of between 72 percent and 80 percent and now get one that hovers around 60 percent. This apathy is one indicator of increased voter cynicism — and it is likely to get worse following the parliamentary-expenses scandal.
Many of the voters who did not stay home, however, supported what used to be called fringe parties but which now attract quite substantial and even “sticky” support. In Norwich North, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) got more than 4,000 votes and placed fourth. Still more impressively, UKIP won almost 12 percent of the total vote — up from 2.4 percent in the last election. As several commentators have noticed, UKIP now looks like it is putting down electoral roots as a genuine political party, not just a temporary refuge for discontented Tory votes. As such, it is a serious long-term threat to Tory electoral prospects.
The second-best-performing fringe party was the Greens. They won more than 3,300 votes — a good increase on the last election. But since they have been strong locally for some time — they are the second-largest party in Norwich’s local government — that was a slightly disappointing performance. Its national significance, however, was that it showed the Greens are at least as credible as the Tories in the competition for “progressive” voters disillusioned with Labour and the Lib-Dems — and maybe more credible.
The rise of the semi-fascist British National Party was the media shock-horror show of the Euro-elections. In Norwich, however, it placed a less frightening seventh (just after a former British diplomat who resigned because he felt that the Foreign Office was insufficiently concerned with human rights), winning fewer than 1,000 votes. Most of these came presumably from working-class nationalist voters who were unhappy with Labour but still suspicious of the Tories, especially Tories whose main electoral preoccupation is wooing metropolitan liberals with cuddly green policies.
My conclusion from the European elections was that the Left had collapsed, the Right had stalled, and the fringe parties (mainly but not entirely among nationalist voters on the farther Right) would be the beneficiaries. Norwich North confirms the main lines of this analysis, though the Tories did well enough to bump up against its borders.
So the Tories will almost certainly win the next election, as the headlines suggested, but (a) their victory will be mainly a result of Labour’s astounding collapse; (b) their electoral strategy of wooing progressive centrist voters at the cost of alienating social and nationalist conservatives is backfiring spectacularly; and (c) it is even now just possible that they could be deprived of outright victory if enough UKIP voters stick with their current date. If and when the Tories do win, they are likely to enter government with a weak mandate, a low share of the national vote for a winning party (though not so weak as Labour’s 2005 share of 36 percent), an electorate that is still suspicious of them as amiable lightweights without clear policies, and a mammoth set of economic problems rooted in massive government overspending and over-regulation.
The new Tory government will have only one advantage: the power of comparison. There have been five-and-a-half periods of Labour government since 1923. Ramsay MacDonald’s nine-month 1924 minority Labour administration is the half; it scarcely counts here. Of the five following governments, including the long Blair-Brown administration, four will have left office amid major economic and financial catastrophe when Brown does so. The voters may begin to notice a pattern.