It is often said that a week is a long time in politics but for the leaders of Britain’s mainstream parties, last week must have felt like an eternity. This week has presented the parties with ill-timed gaffes and electoral embarrassment, severely undermining their stronghold on Westminster politics, in the run up to 2015. Ed Miliband in particular could be forgiven for wishing that Alan Johnson, the former home secretary, had plucked up the courage to mount a leadership challenge earlier this month.
Miliband’s appearance on ITV’s The Agenda on Monday evening was Labour’s first encounter with ‘Klass’ warfare this week. Designed to be less interrogatory than the BBC’s Newsnight, the programme provides guests the chance to debate topical issues in a more informal atmosphere. However, as Miliband’s luck would have it, he was subject to a haranguing on a scale that even Jeremy Paxman himself would have been proud of.
The fact that the panellists were against his mansion tax is not the issue – debate and disagreement is expected and indeed welcome in a democracy. Rather, it was the lack of respect shown towards Miliband that should be of concern to the Labour leadership, for this suggests that he does not personify a credible Prime Minister in waiting. Polling evidence confirms this assertion. For example, according to a recent YouGov survey only 19% believed that Miliband would make the best Prime Minister, compared with Cameron’s 38%. In an era of presidentialised politics, this statistic alone should be sufficient to keep Labour’s spin doctors and election strategists awake at night.
Adding to the worries of the Labour Party this week, was Emily Thornberry’s sneering tweet of a house in Strood draped in St George’s flags with a white van parked outside. The damage caused was so catastrophic, that she was forced to resign as Shadow Attorney General. This self-inflicted wound was reminiscent of the Gillian Duffy incident during the 2010 general election campaign, whereby the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, branded a member of the public a ‘bigot’ for expressing concerns about immigration and other salient issues. This latest misdemeanour has helped to confirm in voters’ minds that the Labour Party leadership has lost touch with reality outside of the so-called ‘Westminster bubble’ – a term so effectively used by Alex Salmond and the Scottish National Party during the independence referendum in Scotland.
Labour’s woes cushioned the blow for the Conservative Party in its failure to win the Rochester and Strood by-election. Yet, despite the fact that UKIP’s margin of victory was smaller than the opinion polls predicted, it remains the case that Nigel Farage’s party managed to resist the full force of the Tory electoral machine. As Paul Goodman, editor of Conservative Home writes, "more than 100 Tory MPs trooped down to Kent to canvass. Cameron himself visited no fewer than five times". Such an onslaught of both parliamentarians and activists showed just how important the party regarded this by-election in stopping the Ukip juggernaut in its tracks.
In contrast, the Liberal Democrats always knew that they would be propping up the field in this contest. Even so, achieving the twin feat of the worst performance in a by-election by a governing party and their own worst by-election result does not augur well for May 2015. Ironically, the one factor that is likely to prevent total electoral annihilation for Nick Clegg’s party is the First-Past-The-Post electoral system – the very system that the party campaigned so vociferously against in the Alternative Vote referendum in May 2011.
When political commentators and academics alike analyse the outcome of the next general election, last week will rightly be regarded as a significant one in the now over-extended campaign period. Emily Thornberry’s tweet will no doubt feature on the Conservatives’ and UKIP’s campaign literature in the months to come. Moreover, the closer than expected result in Rochester and Strood may well be remembered for dissuading potential defectors from joining the UKIP fold. Future predictions aside, what is clear from last week is that the crumbling structure that is the Palace of Westminster is an apt metaphor for Westminster’s ailing three-party system.
By Matthew Rice