Haltemprice and Howden: what lessons to be learned?

by Stephen Tall on July 11, 2008

The close-of-poll predictions last night proved to be pretty accurate: David Davis easily won in yesterday’s Haltemprice and Howden by-election, with a solid 72% of the vote. The turnout was 34%, and the Greens pipped the English Democrats to second place by 44 votes, both polling 7%. No other candidates retained their deposits.

• David Michael Davis – Conservative Party 17,113, 72%
• Shan Oakes – Green Party 1,758, 7%
• Joanne Robinson – English Democrats 1,714, 7%
• Tess Culnane – National Front Britain for the British 544, 2%
• Gemma Dawn Garrett – Miss Great Britain Party 521, 2%
• Jill Saward – Independent 492, 2%
• Mad Cow-Girl – The Official Monster Raving Loony Party 412, 2%
• Walter Edward Sweeney – Independent 238, 1%
There were another 18 candidates who stood, who between them, polled 1,119 votes.
Turnout 23,911 (34.03%)

Two questions to ponder this morning:

1. Does the result justify David Davis’s decision to quit Parliament to trigger a by-election?

Well, yes and no. His overwhelming vote is certainly a commanding personal mandate which will afford him a good deal of satisfaction. But does it prove anything? Those who voted for him will have done so for a variety of reasons: yes, agreement with his opposition to 42 days detention without trial; but also personal admiration for Mr Davis, and/or admiration for his courageous stance; respect for him as a constituency MP; support for him as the Tory party candidate. And doubtless many others, too. In short, this cannot be taken as a referendum on 42 days, or the other civil liberties issues Mr Davis raised – there were just too many other considerations at stake.

And yet, and yet… 34% of people chose to cast their vote yesterday, the vast majority of them for Mr Davis. Though turnout was lower than the 40% threshold I suggested yesterday would be desirable for Mr Davis – 34% is less than half the 2005 general election turnout: proportionately that’s one of the worst by-election turnouts in a Tory-held seat in living memory – given the lack of credible opposition he was facing it would be churlish to deny that a significant number of folk chose to have their say. And, despite the Westminster village’s disdain (as well as the barely suppressed antagonism of ConservativeHome to Mr Davis) Mr Davis’s campaign has certainly kept the issue in the headlines more than would have been the case had he not resigned in such an explosive way.

2. Did the Lib Dems do the right thing by agreeing not to contest the seat?

I shall not rehearse the arguments again: they have been debated on these pages ad nauseum and I don’t find myself having changed my view since I wrote here:

Had Nick … refused to give the Lib Dems’ tacit backing it’s unlikely Mr Davis would have resigned; and I’m not sure that would have been any more to the Lib Dems’ advantage. If Mr Davis had called Nick’s bluff, and resigned anyway, the prospect would be far worse for the party: pilloried by many we would prefer to call our friends, and facing an almost certain defeat in the process.

What has certainly disappointed me, though, is the party’s near-silence ever since. I can only guess that Nick Clegg’s decision not to stand a candidate was sufficiently controversial at the top of the party that he didn’t feel able to pursue the campaigning logic of his decision.

Having stood down in what was once one of our top targets, surely the party should have tried to get some positive messages across? Perhaps there was literature distributed, a website set up, for the benefit of the voters in Haltemprice and Howden explaining the party’s decision, and setting out clearly the Lib Dem stance on civil liberties – which is a good deal more liberal, consistent and united than that offered by Mr Davis’s party – but if we did I missed it.

There are those who have argued on this site (I’m thinking especially of David Morton’s intelligent, insightful comments) that the party ceded the campaign by not putting up a candidate. But we didn’t need a candidate to be able to campaign on an issue that is at the very heart of what liberalism and this party is about. Instead we chose to sit on our hands, and keep quiet: which is either because it was thought strategically wise (which I doubt), or because the party leadership could not agree what should be done.

Whatever you thought of Nick Clegg’s original decision, once it was made it was up to the party to make the best of it. Looking back it’s hard to argue that we made anything of it at all. And that is a true shame.