By Andy Mayer
Congratulations to Labour’s Dan Jarvis, who has beaten the nationalists into second place, to be coronated the next Labour MP in Barnsley Central. The Liberal Democrats came sixth.
Were this a small town in Scotland it would not be an entirely unusual result, albeit still bad for the Liberal Democrats.
The low turnout (37% versus 57% at the general election) was a factor. The 2nd place at the general election was only 17%, some 6 votes higher than the Conservatives.
The headline though is what matters, with echos of the SDP’s 7th place performance in Bootle 1990. The result that finally persuaded David Owen to dissolve the party.
It is hard though to draw any meaningful conclusion from the result beyond a sense that the UK like the USA is polarising. The US split is sometimes characterised as ‘the United States of Canada’ versus ‘Jesusland’, ours as ‘AngloSaxonia’ versus ‘Southern Scandinavia’.
Multi-party Scotland for example has proven curiously resilient to plural outcomes over the last 30 years with Labour regularly out-performing their national vote share, and widely predicted to return as the largest party in May’s Scottish elections.
Even in 2010 Labour secured 42% of the Scottish vote (versus 29% overall) with a swing away from the SNP. This after presiding over a financial disaster on a scale akin to the Scottish banking crisis that precipitated the Act of Union in 1707.
In that context it’s hard to see what trends or political winds it would take for a centrist or centre-right party to win big in Scotland.
Could some parts of the north of England be going the same way?
The North East has 25 Labour MPs and 4 from coalition parties. It’s hard to see that changing much, even with voting reform.
The South East conversely has 75 Conservatives, 4 Liberal Democrats, 4 Labour and 1 Green.
These are regions as divided on politics as Texas and New Jersey.
Such division is a problem for the Liberal Democrats. It means a centre-ground squeeze if we remain coherent, and (at least) two parties if we return to protest-vote opportunism.
Results like Barnsley Central, numerically irrelevant in themselves, will encourage defections and add fuel to the narrative of a liberal split.
There is a further problem in what to do about it. Ending the coalition or ditching Nick Clegg might appease typically Labour protest votes, but not win them back, whilst simultaneously alienating liberal conservatives and independents.
Reversing the tuition fees reversal would deepen tensions in the party (many MPs would be made to look ridiculous) and do nothing to restore public trust. That damage has been done.
Does it mean the party should always sit outside Government until it can win a majority? Maybe electorally, but this is unlikely to improve the party’s credibility as a future government, or make the case for electoral reform.
The unhappy advice surely then is that Nick Clegg must stick to his guns, do more to flesh out what his centre-ground liberal alternative looks like, and weather more Barnsley Centrals on the road to 2015 in the hope events and opponents will provide the opportunities for revival.
Whether or not the party let him do that remains to be seen.