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Does Snoutgate mean that Tatton is the future of British politics?

By Mark Littlewood
May 17th, 2009 at 3:05 pm | 7 Comments | Posted in UK Politics

neil-hamilton-and-martin-bell1If the fallout from Snoutgate is a long-term breakdown of trust of politicians, does this mean that your electoral prospects could now better as a mere PPC rather than as an MP? In other words, is incumbency now potentially electoral poison. 

I’m more interested in the lower-grade stuff. The occassional item of soft furnishing. The odd electric toothbrush or lightbulb. A Kenwood mixer here or a new kettle there.

It’s not hard to see how the political opponents of such MPs could run their local campaigns.

If you remember back to June 2006, the LibDems nearly snatched the safe seat of Bromley from the Tories with a swing of 14% in a Parliamentary by-election. Cameron was flying high in the polls at the time. There were no enormous policy issues dominating the campaign.

The LibDem machine focused relentlessly on the professional record of hapless Tory candidate Bob Neil – “Three Jobs Bob” as he was dubbed. And it came within a whisker of shifting a safe Conservative seat from the blue to the yellow column.

The allegation against Bob Neil was that he would be unable to dilligently carry out his duties as a local MP. He didn’t live in the area and had numerous other serious professional and political commitments. Fair enough points to make against your opponent in the rough and tumble of a by-election campaign, for sure. But nowhere near as electorally poisonous as the stuff that is coming out about a whole swathe of MPs. If Bob Neil had also charged the taxpayer £2,000 to have his moat dredged or £800 for a widescreen TV, he would have been annihilated.

So – unless like David Howarth – you have a record so squeaky clean you may even be able to turn it to your electoral advantage, what will the impact be on siting MPs? Perhaps the present anger will dissipate. But if it doesn’t, incumbency now strikes me as – all things being equal – an electoral disadvantage.

If you were a LibDem candidate, would you prefer to have a majority of a couple of thousand, but a few minor embarrassments on your expenses claims? Or would you prefer to be the main challenger? A few thousand votes behind, but against a Tory or Labour opponent who has bought a DVD player, rewired his electrics and purchased some flashy new curtains. I think I’d be more confident as the LibDem challenger, rather than as the LibDem incumbent

This could have some profound implications for the party’s electoral strategy. A central pillar of LibDem thinking has always been that Liberals can “dig in”. Once you’ve won the seat, you are dilligent in handling casework and building your local profile. This insulates you against a national swing. It helps you build a sizeable personal vote. Norman Lamb’s victory in 2005 and Ed Davey’s in 2001 are striking examples of this.

But has Snoutgate just driven a coach and horses through this approach? Have hundreds of hours of local campaigning, thousands of personalised letters and an all-round-the-year diary of campaigning just been made to look like small electoral beer when compared to what you have – or have not – claimed on the second home allowance? Is the list of winnable LibDem seats now unrecognisable from what it would have been just a fortnight ago? Are there now a tranche of seats which have suddenly become more winnable than a good number of seats that we presently hold?

Will we see a massively enhanced role for local campaigning, where the record of the sitting MP out-trumps any other issue on campaign literature? Could we witness the delicious oddity of a party making hay out of expenses claim in one seat, while simultaneously trying to defend itself against almost identical allegations in the neighbouring constituency?

Might the General Election even feel a bit like a ton of simultaneous by-elections? Back in 1997, the Tories suffered badly across the board because of the stench of sleaze – but in Tatton, the downfall of Neil Hamilton (with a humungous 39% swing against him) at the hands of white knight Martin Bell was simply stunning. Might the next election contain a helluva lot of Tattons?

We’re still in the midst of a devastating political crisis. And the Telegraph has so far only printed the expense claims of about 100 MPs. It’s hard to even begin to guess what the eventual electoral fallout will be. But it seems safe to say that a lot of the established electoral rulebook will need to be thrown out of the window.

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