By Matthew Flinders
I’d never even heard of Eastleigh, let alone been there, until a couple of weeks ago. When I did go there I wished that I hadn’t. A collection of railway sidings, the headquarters of a major DIY chain, the former home of Mr Kipling’s bakery and to be honest not much else. The fact that I am told that the ‘notable residents’ of Eastleigh include Benny Hill and Stephen Gough (the ‘naked rambler’ no less) did little to quell the stench of good-times-past that hung in the air. But in the by-election last week the people of Eastleigh spoke — in record numbers — and their message was clear: ‘sod off’.
Eastleigh was beastly not because the Liberal Democrats haemorrhaged support, or because the Tories came third or because UKIP came through with a surge like the Flying Scotsman in full steam but because the election signalled a growing sense of anti-politics and anti-government. The eightfold increase in UKIP’s vote cannot be written-off as a mid-term blip or a sign of disillusionment with any one party. In reality both the Liberal Democrats and the Tories lost around a third of their vote since the 2010 General Election. That was the election that UKIP campaigned under the banner of ‘sod the lot’ and a call for a new form of politics and in many ways UKIP is emerging not as a mainstream political party but as a repository for protest votes.
From Rotherham to Corby and from Middlesbrough to Eastleigh UKIP are becoming the ‘None-of-the-Above Party’ through which the public seek to express their disillusionment and confusion. Nigel Farage may have been right when he described UKIP’s jump from 3.6 per cent of the vote in 2010 to 27.8 per cent last week when he said the public were ‘sticking two fingers up to the establishment’. But he was wrong when he argued that ‘people didn’t just vote UKIP because they dislike the three main parties, they voted UKIP on policy’. Evidence for this seems scant as survey after survey reveals that European issues rank towards the bottom of most voter’s main concerns (and well below jobs, taxes and increases in the cost of living). Immigration was a key concern amongst Hampshire voters last week, but it was in 2010 when UKIP won just four per cent. The fuel driving UKIP success was anti-political populism — a heady mix of anti-Europeanism and the promotion of populist libertarianism.
Take one anti-political context, add a sleaze-related by-election, sprinkle-in a ‘sex scandal saga’, blame Europe for everything in a recession-hit town and is it any surprise the ‘None-of-the-Above Party’ did so well? The ‘sod off’ mentality was captured succinctly (and with slightly more force) when the Labour candidate, John O’Farrell, blogged that ‘there are doorbells telling us to ‘F**k Off’’. To some degree this public response was understandable – this was an election without politics. It was a circus. Blame games and sound bites triumphed and democratic politics was left looking shallow, self-interested and self-serving: nobody campaigned in poetry.
What then does the Eastleigh by-election suggest — if anything – about the relationship between the governors and the governed?
First and foremost, governing in hard times is never easy and the public can be a selfish master to serve. And yet there does appear to be an appetite for a different type of politics. That is a politics — and therefore politicians — that is willing to engage in public conversations about the values that underpin our society and the limits of the state. These conversations will have to accept that there are no simple solutions to complex problems and that difficult decisions will have to be taken by whoever is in power irrespective of their party. Democratic politics, as Bernard Crick argued in his In Defence of Politics fifty years ago ‘cannot make every sad heart glad’ but it can and generally does deliver far more than most people seem to realise. The barb in my argument is therefore designed to prick not politicians but the public.
The public in the sense that they can’t simply opt-out of politics: ‘none-of-the-above’ is not an option on our polling cards for a reason. You can’t accept the rights of democratic citizenship but not fulfil your responsibilities. As Thomas Paine argued towards the end of the eighteenth century, ‘Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must undergo the fatigue of supporting it’. From here my mind wants to leap a long way from Eastleigh and the River Itchen to Adam Curtis’ award-winning 2007 documentary series The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom with its graphic deconstruction of how a simplistic model of human beings as self-seeking, almost robotic, creatures led to a vision of freedom that left us knowing the price of everything but the value of nothing. I’m sure there’s a link — somewhere somehow — between the broader socio-political concerns that Curtis sought to highlight in The Trap and the notion of a ‘None-of-the-Above Party’ but I just can’t put my finger on it. I do, however, remember that the first episode was called ‘F**k You Buddy’….
Matthew Flinders is Professor of Parliamentary Government & Governance at the University of Sheffield. He has nothing against the town of Eastleigh and even admits to being a fan of railway towns in general having been brought up in Swindon and spending his school holidays in Doncaster. He was awarded the Political Communicator of the Year Award in 2012. Author of Defending Politics (2012), you can find him on Twitter @PoliticalSpike and read more of Matthew Flinders’s blog posts.
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Image credit: The UK Independence Party’s 2010 election campaign poster via UKIP.