Back in April I’d written here about the inevitability of the Labour Party winning the South Shields by-election using it as an illustration of how the phenomenon of the safe seat corrupts our politics.
I didn’t write anything in reaction to the result last month as it went as expected. However, I did find a couple of pieces of commentary on the result that I thought backed up what I was saying and I think it is worth using them to restate the case.
There was this piece on The Guardian’s Northerner Blog which highlighted the by default nature of Labour’s victory;
“Having spent three days in South Shields since David Miliband announced he was off to New York, I’d say that a sizeable proportion of the population wants a change. When I went out door knocking with her last week on the Harton estate, almost everyone we called on promised her their vote. When I lingered behind to ask why, every single one began with: ‘Because we always do.’…..Without these tribal voters, Labour would have been in serious difficulty.”
If there is a sizeable minority looking for change, in such a “one party state”, who can they vote for? UKIP’s success as the main vehicle for the protest vote, which I think slightly exceeded expectations, is one answer. But without genuine party competition these people are disenfranchised. This is how safe seats corrupt.
This point was reinforced by a post I came across on the Labour List blog. In”We need to talk about South Shields” the author bemoans the lack of campaigning activity by Labour in the seat prior to the election, criticises David Milliband for not doing something about it, and argues that is example of “Lazy Labour”. Apparently;
“Several very reliable sources have told me that the voter contact rate (the percentage of people in the constituency for whom the party has a record of voting preference) in the constituency was as low as 0.2% – or roughly 100 people. That’s effectively zero, and enough to suggest that little or no canvassing had ever been done in the seat.”
While that is pretty shocking for even the safest of safe seats — I am not all that surprised. And I find the authors dismay at this situation a little naive. Where is the incentive for Labour activists to work hard every year canvassing and doing other activities when they know that whatever happens Labour are going to win the seat?
I have my issues with David Miliband, but they primarily relate to foreign policy. I’ve never heard any suggestion that he was a particularly poor constituency MP. Where was the incentive for Miliband to spend time and energy building a top notch campaign machine when he knew that his re-election was guaranteed? His energies would be much better spent elsewhere. A seat like South Shields is the ideal kind of constituency for someone with aspirations to lead the Labour Party. Just like Blair’s was in Sedgefield. (Labour have held that seat since 1935.)
While “laziness” of this kind in an MP, of whatever party, in a marginal seat is suicidal — in a seat as safe as South Shields I’d call it a proper allocation of resources. Criticism of individual politicians, or of party machinery, misses the point. Choices such as these are driven by the outcomes of our electoral system. It is first past the post that is at fault.