Lessons from the Haltemprice and Howden by-election

July 11, 2008

David Davis wins Haltemprice and Howden. But there’s winning and there’s winning. What lessons can be drawn from this unusual by-election?

In the early hours of Friday 11th July 2008, the result came through. Former Home Secretary David Davis wins.

The BBC’s introductory statement outlines the result.

David Davis has eased to victory in the Haltemprice and Howden by-election with a 15,355 majority and 72% of the vote.

This seems to justify the candidate’s description that he had achieved ‘a stunning victory’.

Well, yes, but the claim was too close in time to the claims made by Robert Mugabe, a week ago, in the re-run Presidential election in Zimbabwe.

I’m not comparing the two in terms of brutal suppression of human rights. But there is a curious echo of the process in Harare now replicated in Haltemprice. Voters in both locations were deprived of a chance to vote for serious opposition candidates.

The MP the voters wanted

It could be reasonably argued that the electorate had last night regained the MP they continued to prefer. So the curious circumstances of the event did not matter.

In another way the circumstances did matter. In the short-term at least the publicity means that some importance can be attributed to the conclusions drawn over the result.

In a nutshell

In a nutshell, Mr Davis resigned in a political gesture to draw attention to his view that the country’s essential freedoms were being eroded. This implied that his own party (and arguably his own efforts as shadow home secretary) were inadequate opposition. The trigger to his resignation and reapplication to stand in his old constituency was the ’42 day detention’ vote, and the political trade-offs surrounding the narrow Government win.

Did Mr Cameron Approve?

Mr Cameron spoke in favour of Mr Davis during the campaign. But his actions belied his words. He had already acted in a way that was a clear signal of his disapproval of what was going on. He avoided leaving a hostage to fortune by rapidly appointing a replacement, ensuring Mr Davis would not return to Westminster in his former role of Shadow Home Secretary.

It is widely reported that David Davis has won considerable public admiration for his action. It is popular and regarded as courageous, even politically heroic. Such a view contrasts with a widespread presumption in the UK that politicians act primarily in self-interest. Maybe it’s worth remembering adding that a belief in the primacy of self-interest is shared by the overwhelming majority of believers in economic rationality.

The bookies (often good indicators of economic rationality) are offering odds on Mr Davis forming his own political party

Playing with the figures

Playing with the figures becomes more revealing if you go go into them in a little more detail..

Turnout was around 35%. Respectable for a by-election, but hardly evidence of an electorate that had been swept up in the single-issue campaign.

A fifteen thousand majority. Crushing in terms of the other candidates. But Mr. Davis could also be said to have lost around seven thousand voters since the general election.

Winners and losers?

The conservatives seem only to have to avoid blunders to win a crushing victory at a general election in a year or so. The by-election was only ever going to be a distraction, with some longer-term negatives if Mr. Davis attracts attention for opposing his party’s official policies in the House.

Labour and Liberal democratic party leaders alike decided not to field candidates. Their arguments fail to convince that the decisions are based on anything but rational self-interest.

Shan Oates of the Green party polled 1,758 votes. She is now technically is the leading opposition to the Conservatives (or to Mr Davis’s single issue position) in the constituency. Her opposition combined green issues with a position claiming that Mr Davis was too soft in his support for a 28 day detention period without charge.

Media romantics in the build-up to the poll were dreaming of a ‘real’ opposition vote to the futility of the entire election, and a far greater protest against the protest. That seems not to have happened.

Confused? Maybe we have to live with the idea that there are no clear winners in a thoroughly bizarre event. And I never even mentioned the platform that could not bear the weight of the twenty six candidates…


Several hours after posting: Nick Robinson is cogent as ever in his BBC politics blog. He gets to similar conclusions and suggests that his analysis is making him pretty unpopular with Conservative high-ups.

Never mind Nick, if it gets too hot in Westminster, I can think of a well-known University not far from Cheadle Hulme which could use one more controversial visiting Professor.