30 June 2022
No More Etonians?
In April 2013 Barbara Bush, matriarch of that great family, was asked by a journalist whether she thought her son Jeb, brother of George W, should run for President in the 2016 election. She rejected such an idea “…we’ve had enough Bushes” she said. Jeb ignored his mum and ran in the primaries for the Republican nomination, but the GOP seemed to agree with Mrs Bush, and he soon dropped out, though many voters six years later may be wishing he hadn’t. But should we give the same advice to the Conservative Party (we hope to return to American politics next week) and say “We’ve had enough Etonians”? There are, as Mrs Bush said, plenty more families to choose from; and the UK has plenty more schools to choose from. Of 55 British Prime Ministers a remarkable 20 went to Eton, including of course Boris, though he at least got there on a scholarship and not just by Stanley J paying the fees.
But did last week’s election results justify the public prejudice against the current leading product of what after all is, or was, probably the best school in the country? Regular readers will know this column likes to have a ponder on what the results of by-elections may infer, especially as the daily prints no longer seem capable of analysis. We often point out that it is worthwhile actually looking at the figures, and if anything justifies that methodology it is certainly Wakefield and Tiverton, both previously Conservative seats, lost respectively to Labour and the LibDems.
Both by-elections were the result of sex scandals; a rather major one for Wakefield where the sitting MP, Imran Khan, was convicted of an assault on a teenager some years earlier, and a rather minor one for Tiverton and Honiton where Neil Parish, a local farmer in addition to his political duties, was reported by two female colleagues to have been looking at pornography sites on his mobile phone in the Commons. And here we must put the record straight: Mr Parish claimed to have strayed into a specialist site whilst looking for a Class Dominator. Our increasingly unreliable Fourth Estate reported this as a type of tractor. As any fule kno, though apparently not Fleet Street ones, it is a make of combine harvester. The Shaw Sheet likes things to be correct.
Both members did the decent thing, and resigned their seats. With almost indecent haste the Conservative Chief Whip moved writs for both by-elections. The previous incumbent party has a certain amount of latitude as to when a writ can be moved and it is often thought best to wait about three months, sometimes up to six, so that there is time for a proper process of choosing candidates for the by-election. Why there was such a rush here, especially as it made no difference to the large Conservative majority in the Commons, we do not know. The main casualty seemed indeed to be the Tories, who managed to select two remarkably weak candidates.
Both duly lost. Much triumphalism in social media and political obituary writing (of both Johnson and Starmer) in the daily press.
Labour won Wakefield with a majority of almost 5,000 and so they jolly well should; it has been a relatively safe Labour seat, though with gentrification slowly eroding Labour majorities in recent decades, since 1932 (it was rather marginal before that). In 2019 it was one of Boris’s red wall triumphs, won by Mr Khan with a 3,000 odd majority. But look at the figures for the last two elections: including all the minor candidates (there were 14 runners and riders last week), the turnout dropped from 45,027 in 2019 to 27,466 in 2022, from 64% of the electorate to 39%. That hardly suggests local fury at the evil Tories, nor a ringing endorsement of Labour and Sir K. The winning Labour candidate won on nearly 5,000 less votes than the losing Labour tryer in 2019. The Conservative dropped from 21,000 to just over 8,000; and the LibDem moved almost to vanishing point, from 1,772 to 508. Whether things would have been better for him or worse if Sir Ed Davey had actually visited the constituency we cannot know; but the LibDem lost his deposit and was beaten by Reform, Green, Yorkshire, and an independent. (Of the 14 candidates 11 lost their deposits. Your correspondent respectfully suggests to the authorities that the deposit be increased from the current £500 to £10,000, but the point at which it be forfeit move to 3% from the current 5%.) So, no sign of protest or rebellion or indeed that anybody in Wakefield cares very much about anything just at the moment; apathy rules. It does suggest that the red seat surge to blue in 2019 was probably a bit of a protest vote; perhaps the Conservatives should worry more about keeping their traditional seats rather than places of natural (moderate) Labour strength.
Which brings us to Tiverton and Honiton. This certainly is a traditional Conservative seat. It has been Conservative since time began. Well, not quite; since 1885, except for a by-election 99 years ago which the Liberals won – spooky, no? The Conservatives got it back the following year, so cheer up Boris. As well he might, or at least Conservative Central Office might, on examination of the figures. The turnout, like Wakefield, dropped from 72% to 52%, and Mr Parish’s support last time of 35,893 votes switched to the LibDems winning with 22,527 (8,807 last time). The Conservative managed to persuade 16,393 voters to support her. The shocker was the Labour candidate, the same candidate both times, who went from second place in 2019 with 11,654 votes to third this time with 1,562, and lost her deposit. So the Tory was 20,000 votes down – and the turnout was 17,000 votes down. Are those figures related? We cannot say of course, but we suggest a correlation, with (here we are fairly certain) a lot of the LibDem votes coming from those who voted Labour last time.
That will be scant cheer to the Boris faction – the effect is much the same if your supporters stay at home as if they vote for somebody else. But it does suggest dissatisfaction rather than rebellion. One matter that must be brought into this; the LibDem candidate was the sort of candidate that used to do so well for the Tories; former army major, now working in education, personable, hard working, well briefed, charming and informed on the doorsteps. The unfortunate Labour candidate was well known, likable, energetic, and of course had run here before (give her a safe seat now, some Labour association, she deserves it). The Conservative candidate was chosen from an all women shortlist enforced on the constituency party. Crass, naïve, and stupid as that was in an old fashioned Tory seat, a good candidate could have laughed it off and done much better on the day, maybe even held on, just. This one was… shall we say, almost the opposite of the LibDem winner. Even an Etonian would have done better than this. So, message to Conservative Central Office, if anybody still works there. If you are the party of merit, choose on merit, and just on merit. The voters are not stupid.