1). Independents and the changing face of politics. The election of 12 independent police commissioners (at the latest count) in Dorset, Gwent, North Wales*, Hampshire, Warwickshire, West Mercia, Kent, Avon & Somerset, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Surrey and Gloucestershire is cause for celebration. The aim of elected Police and Crime Commissioners is to localise power in communities, making it more accountable and therefore, one hopes, improve the quality of the service. Independent commissioners are, theoretically, the purest form of this. The same applies to George Ferguson, the newly elected independent mayor of Bristol.
Their success also expresses the fact that this was a profoundly anti-politics election. The very low turnout was a symptom of many things, ranging from opposition to the policy on the doorstep (which was widely reported by Labour MPs) to a failure of the parties and the national media to communicate the purpose of the policy. Above all, though, low turnout is a long-term trend. This is a malaise that goes to the heart of our party system and its overbearing role in our democracy. The independent commissioners may, in the long run, prove to be the tonic that we need, although their legitimacy is bound to be questioned due to the low turnout.
It’s also clear that, as party affiliations become looser and issues and identities become more prominent in our politics, the established parties are going to have work with independent candidates where they can at future elections. Adam Boulton reports that the Lib Dems appear to have done this in Bristol and North Wales (*the independent PCC is a party member). It’s also worth remembering the furore earlier in the week when it transpired that the Tories courted James Delingpole in Corby. This may be the course of things to come.
2). A mixed day for Labour. The Corby result, as James says, gives Miliband a platform from which to sell ‘One Nation Labour’. However, there were some poor results for Labour thrown in. North Wales, Gwent, Humberside and the Bristol mayoralty (where Labour had expended a lot of capital) were, as James wrote yesterday evening, battles that Labour ought to have won. Those results concerned some centre-left commentators; yet, the poor turnout surely means that these elections were not representative of the national picture. Indeed, Labour won the PCC election in Bedfordshire, which is something of a coup for them. I’m not sure that you can extrapolate too much from any of this.
3). The squeeze on the Tories. The Staggers’ George Eaton has a useful post arguing that Corby shows Labour’s route to power: the defection of the Lib Dem left to Labour and a reasonably strong performance from UKIP squeezes the Tories. This is a new twist on the old Tory fear that a united left spells disaster for the divided centre-right. The question is: how does David Cameron unite the centre-right? Does he tack to the right, as Patrick O’Flynn suggests? Does he revive the Lib Dems in the hope of weakening Labour by giving them a few legislative victories? Does he begin the process of killing the Lib Dems off (and perhaps seduce some lonely Blairites along the way) by stealing their socially liberal clothes while continuing to talk of public service reform and fiscal discipline?
4). UKIP triumphant or UKIP perpetual under achievers? There’s been a lot of chatter about how well UKIP did; but did it really? Once again, no UKIP politician will wield power in Britain outside local government. In the popular vote for PCCs, the party is (at the time of writing) neck and neck with the despised and doomed Lib Dems, some 729,103 first preference votes behind the independent candidates, who were the next largest group. The party finished third in Corby, polling 5,108 votes; a good result, yet its total vote was still 2,680 votes less than the gap between Labour and the Tories in first and second. This does not suggest to me that Cameron would be on to a winner by lurching into the fringes with Farage. The problem for the Tories is not that 5,108 people voted UKIP, it is that 17,267 people voted Labour. This is not to say that Cameron does not need a much clearer policy on Europe or immigration; but it is to say that those policies must reflect the fact that the 2015 election can only be won from the centre. The centre, emphatically, does not sympathise with Mr Farage.
5). It’s grim up north for the Tories. Grim’s not the word. The Tories got smashed in some northern cities. I wrote yesterday:
‘It is…important to remember that the PCC elections are not, in theory at least, a referendum on the government; they primarily concern localism and the law and order policy brief. That said, the Tories’ woeful showing in South Yorkshire (beaten into 3rd by the English Democrats) and in Durham (finished a miserable 4th) – to say nothing of the debacle in the Manchester Central by-election, where the party lost its deposit – should concern the party. As James argued in a recent magazine column, the PCC elections gave the party an opportunity to improve their standing in urban areas by fighting on an issue that suited them. These elections suggest that many people, especially in the north, simply cannot listen to the Conservative Party.’
It is very difficult to see what will make them listen, let alone vote.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.