Haltemprice and Howden: what lessons to be learned?

The close-of-poll predictions last night proved to be pretty accurate: David Davis easily won in yesterday’s Haltemprice and Howden by-election, with a solid 72% of the vote. The turnout was 34%, and the Greens pipped the English Democrats to second place by 44 votes, both polling 7%. No other candidates retained their deposits.

• David Michael Davis – Conservative Party 17,113, 72%
• Shan Oakes – Green Party 1,758, 7%
• Joanne Robinson – English Democrats 1,714, 7%
• Tess Culnane – National Front Britain for the British 544, 2%
• Gemma Dawn Garrett – Miss Great Britain Party 521, 2%
• Jill Saward – Independent 492, 2%
• Mad Cow-Girl – The Official Monster Raving Loony Party 412, 2%
• Walter Edward Sweeney – Independent 238, 1%
There were another 18 candidates who stood, who between them, polled 1,119 votes.
Turnout 23,911 (34.03%)

Two questions to ponder this morning:

1. Does the result justify David Davis’s decision to quit Parliament to trigger a by-election?

Well, yes and no. His overwhelming vote is certainly a commanding personal mandate which will afford him a good deal of satisfaction. But does it prove anything? Those who voted for him will have done so for a variety of reasons: yes, agreement with his opposition to 42 days detention without trial; but also personal admiration for Mr Davis, and/or admiration for his courageous stance; respect for him as a constituency MP; support for him as the Tory party candidate. And doubtless many others, too. In short, this cannot be taken as a referendum on 42 days, or the other civil liberties issues Mr Davis raised – there were just too many other considerations at stake.

And yet, and yet… 34% of people chose to cast their vote yesterday, the vast majority of them for Mr Davis. Though turnout was lower than the 40% threshold I suggested yesterday would be desirable for Mr Davis – 34% is less than half the 2005 general election turnout: proportionately that’s one of the worst by-election turnouts in a Tory-held seat in living memory – given the lack of credible opposition he was facing it would be churlish to deny that a significant number of folk chose to have their say. And, despite the Westminster village’s disdain (as well as the barely suppressed antagonism of ConservativeHome to Mr Davis) Mr Davis’s campaign has certainly kept the issue in the headlines more than would have been the case had he not resigned in such an explosive way.

2. Did the Lib Dems do the right thing by agreeing not to contest the seat?

I shall not rehearse the arguments again: they have been debated on these pages ad nauseum and I don’t find myself having changed my view since I wrote here:

Had Nick … refused to give the Lib Dems’ tacit backing it’s unlikely Mr Davis would have resigned; and I’m not sure that would have been any more to the Lib Dems’ advantage. If Mr Davis had called Nick’s bluff, and resigned anyway, the prospect would be far worse for the party: pilloried by many we would prefer to call our friends, and facing an almost certain defeat in the process.

What has certainly disappointed me, though, is the party’s near-silence ever since. I can only guess that Nick Clegg’s decision not to stand a candidate was sufficiently controversial at the top of the party that he didn’t feel able to pursue the campaigning logic of his decision.

Having stood down in what was once one of our top targets, surely the party should have tried to get some positive messages across? Perhaps there was literature distributed, a website set up, for the benefit of the voters in Haltemprice and Howden explaining the party’s decision, and setting out clearly the Lib Dem stance on civil liberties – which is a good deal more liberal, consistent and united than that offered by Mr Davis’s party – but if we did I missed it.

There are those who have argued on this site (I’m thinking especially of David Morton’s intelligent, insightful comments) that the party ceded the campaign by not putting up a candidate. But we didn’t need a candidate to be able to campaign on an issue that is at the very heart of what liberalism and this party is about. Instead we chose to sit on our hands, and keep quiet: which is either because it was thought strategically wise (which I doubt), or because the party leadership could not agree what should be done.

Whatever you thought of Nick Clegg’s original decision, once it was made it was up to the party to make the best of it. Looking back it’s hard to argue that we made anything of it at all. And that is a true shame.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds and Parliamentary by-elections.
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27 Comments

  • Hywel Morgan 11th Jul '08 - 10:24am

    Spot on Stephen

    “Having stood down in what was once one of our top targets, surely the party should have tried to get some positive messages across …but if we did I missed it.”

    Simon Hughes visited the constituency two days before the election and doesn’t (from the H&H Lib Dems website) seem to have said much on 42 days, ID Cards, DNA databases etc other than with party members over lunch.

  • Well the Green party had another disasterous by-election result only just beating the English Democrats.

  • Matt Sellwood 11th Jul '08 - 10:34am

    Yes, disastrously following our 3rd place in Henley with a 2nd place in Haltemprice….

    Matt

  • A 2nd place on 7% is not really going to catapult it to the top of their target list though is it or even be a stepping stone for any good media coverage.

  • Matt Sellwood 11th Jul '08 - 10:40am

    I don’t thik the aim was ever to ‘catapult it to the top of our target list’. It was to get some good media coverage during the campaign for our civil liberties stances, and to point out from the left that Davis is not a civil liberties saint. Mission accomplished, really.

    I’d have liked to have gotten into double figures, percentage wise, but that wasn’t particularly the aim, as far as I’m concerned.

  • “His overwhelming vote is certainly a commanding personal mandate …”

    A rather odd view, given your own assessment only yesterday that:

    (1) “Mr Davis will be hoping that at least half the electorate will go to the polls. … [but] Given the lack of credible opposition to Mr Davis, he can probably argue that anything over 40% is respectable.”

    (2) “… he will hope and expect to get at least 70% of the vote at this by-election. Anything below that will be embarrassing …”

    Admittedly with 72% of the vote he narrowly avoided fulfilling your “embarrassment” criterion, but obviously the 35% turnout falls far short of your “respectability” criterion, let alone the 50% you think he was hoping for.

    So the turnout wasn’t respectable, and Davis’s vote was 2 points above embarrassing, but the combined effect is “a commanding personal mandate”.

    Did you write that bit before the result was announced, by any chance?

  • Stephen Tall wrote (inter alia):

    “…and setting out clearly the Lib Dem stance on civil liberties – which is a good deal more liberal, consistent and united than that offered by Mr Davis’s party”

    Yes, but what exactly is the Lib Dem stance on civil liberties?

    Satellite surveillance of motor vehicles? (transport working group)
    Marshal law for under 16s? (Julia Goldsworthy)
    Conscription? (Mark Oaten)
    Capital and corporal punishment? (Cyril Smith)

    Ok, it’s a bit unfair of me to shove in Cyril Smith, who was always an outsider with little influence, and whose opinions tended not to be shared by many of his colleagues.

    But Goldsworthy is a different kettle of fish. Goldsworthy holds a Shadow Cabinet portfolio and is believed to be very close to Nick Clegg. The fact that she advocates fascism is an absolute scandal and needs to be stamped on firmly and swiftly.

    Nick should sack her, just as Ted Heath sacked Enoch Powell after his notorious Midlands Hotel speech in 1968.

    Marshal law and youth hating have nothing to do with Liberal Democracy. We need to make that clear.

    PS: What a pathetic result for the “robot radical” Green Party, which failed to pick up more than a handful of progressive votes.

  • Surely what we learn is that large political egos get in the way of sensible governance ?

    [And that applies at any level from Parish Councils or local authorities to shadow home secretaries !]

  • passing tory 11th Jul '08 - 11:46am

    Stephen has missed probably the most important aspect of the whole escapade; that it has demonstrated the level of public support there is for politicians who take a stand and who don’t just develop policy through triangulation.

  • ‘There are those who have argued on this site (I’m thinking especially of David Morton’s intelligent, insightful comments) that the party ceded the campaign by not putting up a candidate. But we didn’t need a candidate to be able to campaign ‘

    That of course is the crux of the issue. I think there is a strong tendency in the party to associate campaigning with elections. They’re not the same thing and we need to do far more to campaign on important issues to win hearts and minds outside of elections.

  • Cheltenham Robin 11th Jul '08 - 12:28pm

    We have gained nothing from the decision not to stand.

    This by-election was nothing to do with civil liberty and more to do with splits in the Tory party.

  • passing tory 11th Jul '08 - 2:20pm

    Stephen, it is not so much that _you_ approved of DD taking a stand as much as the fact that this was very widespread. It challenged the Westminster village consensus view, and opened the door for similar stands in future. This is what I meant by being the opposite of triangulation; rather than having politicians endlessly searching for the middle way, we might start to have more traditional debates from clearly set positions. I would consider this a good thing.

  • “I don’t thik the aim was ever to ‘catapult it to the top of our target list’. It was to get some good media coverage during the campaign for our civil liberties stances, and to point out from the left that Davis is not a civil liberties saint. Mission accomplished, really.”

    How can you sat that beating the English Democrats by just 44 votes is mission accomplished. Despite the spin of top Greens like Rupert Read this result as showing they are on course in their actual target seats seems hard to justify.

    Mission accomplished would have been 10-20% the vote not the dismal 7%.

  • Matt Sellwood 11th Jul '08 - 4:04pm

    “Despite the spin of top Greens like Rupert Read this result as showing they are on course in their actual target seats seems hard to justify.”

    Well I broadly agree, in that I’m not sure this result shows anything about how we are doing in Brighton, Norwich, and so on. Those results will be decided by the hard work that our candidates and their teams are doing in those areas, not by whether we get 1,700 or 2,500 votes in Haltemprice.

    And I can say mission accomplished because I set out two criteria for success and we achieved them both. Perhaps our media coverage wasn’t that which the Lib Dems would expect in a constituency where they wanted to come second, but in comparison to normal coverage of Green candidates in by-elections it was very respectable.

    Matt

  • Given the circumstances, in my view, it was a poor result for the green party, no doubt they and others had hoped/expected they might do better, but they couldn’t really capitalise on the opportunity. Although, any Lib Dem thinking of crowing ought to at least wait until the Glasgow East result is in.

    The real problem for the Greens (aside from some loopy views) is that if they are right and the other parties have nothing to offer on the environment, then they might as well pack up and go home. The idea that winning in Norwich or Brighton will transform anything is darft. The Lib Dems should know, they’ve spent years trying to take on the main parties.

    Rather than knocking the Lib Dems the greens might to better to work for common aims like electoral reform – if they can work with Ken, it must be possible.

  • James Graham thinks the real loser of Haltemprice is Nick Clegg:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/jul/11/haltemprice

  • No-one thus far has mentioned Brown’s rushing through Parliament a statute that permits courts to admit evidence from anonymous witnesses. Not only does this undermine the right to a fair trial and open justice, it amounts to a grave abuse of the Parliamentary process. Yet Cameron and Clegg have colluded with Brown.

    In future, prison grasses who commit perjury for favours will be protected by anonymity. It will not be possible to confront them with their criminal records.

    Show trials like the ABC trial of the 1970s will become a routine occurrence. Anyone remember Colonel Hugh Johnston (oops, that’s contempt of court) who, standing behind a screen, explained to the jury how possessing photographs of the Post Office Tower amounted to a dangerous threat to national security? It took Paul Foot, one of the greatest journalists who has ever lived, to stick his neck out and name the guy.

    Thanks to the collusion of Brown, Cameron and Clegg, we can say goodbye to open justice.

  • Off topic but –
    Does anybody else think that £500 is a cheap price for a freepost mailshot to every voter in a constituency (typ. 50,000 people) plus any extra coverage a wacky name can attract?

  • Spanny Thomas 12th Jul '08 - 3:21am

    Good article Stephen. It was a shocking result for the Greens. Coming second in a 2 horse race (only 2 serious parties entered) and only just beating the English Democrats, a fringe crackpot group, is nothing to be proud of. The anti-Tory votes should have been hoovered up by them.

  • David Morton 13th Jul '08 - 1:13pm

    Thanks Stephen. I’m sure linking back to those comments of mine will be the end of my much deserved Peerage !

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