Lessons from Feltham and Heston
Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 16th December, 2011
Labour won the Feltham and Heston parliamentary by-election in Hounslow, Greater London, yesterday, which was hardly a surprise; it would have been astonishing if the result had been anything else than a comfortable hold in a traditionally safe Labour seat 18 months into a Con-LD Coalition government that is pursuing a policy of cuts. But there were some elements worth remarking. The first was the appallingly low turnout — less than 29 per cent — which shows a serious disengagement from politics by much of the electorate. The second notable fact was that the postal vote turnout was more than twice that level. Elections can easily be won or lost on the postal vote, which makes it all the more urgent that measures are implemented to avoid the sort of postal vote fraud that undoubtedly occurs in some parts of Britain. Roger Crouch, the Liberal Democrat candidate, was an excellent choice and would have made a first rate MP, and he did well to hold on to the party’s third place despite a very strong and well-resourced campaign by UKIP at a time when Europhobia is rampant in much of the UK media. I was a little concerned that some of the LibDem literature was banging on too much about Roger’s “local” credentials, when the Tory candidate is a local councillor and the victorious Labour candidate Seema Malhotra spent a lot of her youth in the area, even if she reportedly now lives in Chelsea. The LibDem literature did highlight some important local issues that had been raised by Hounslow residents and party activists. But the campaign probably needed more of a persuasive national LibDem narrative: why should people vote LibDem nationally at the moment?
The standard line is that having LibDems in Cabinet has restrained the Conservatives from bringing in some of their more right-wing policies, which is undoubtedly true. But it was difficult to make that sound convincing at a time when David Cameron had essentially ignored LibDem pressure and advice vis-à-vis the recent Brussels Summit. Another issue which the LibDems have to come to terms with is that despite the austerity measures and a surge in protests from some sections of the British public, the Conservatives are proving resilient. The latest national opinion poll actually puts them just ahead (CON 41%, LAB 40%, LD 10%). That reality was underlined by the double by-election in the Coombe Vale ward in Kingston, which also took place yesterday, and which the Tories held by a clear margin despite a very concerted and well-focussed LibDem campaign.