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.

David Davis Creates a new West Lothian Question

June 14, 2008

The proposed by-election forced by David Davis has created a new variation of the West Lothian question. If we can’t deal with the earlier dilemma, we will be unlikely to deal with this new version

The resignation of David Davis has sparked intense debate. The more so, because no one has offered a convincing argument which demonstrates how the proposed single-issue by-election is going to work. It seems to me that we have a paradox not unlike the one contained in the so-called West Lothian question.

This now is shorthand for an old argument advanced about the dangers of devolution, by the MP Tam Dalyell. He illustrated the problem in terms of his own West Lothian constituency in Scotland.

One of the better explanations can be found in an article by the BBC’s Brian Taylor, written almost exactly a decade ago.

At the core of the original debate was the right of Scottish MPs to vote on English affairs (from within Westminster), while there is no equivalent right for English MPs to vote on Non-English (Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish matters) matters where responsibilities had been devolved.

Today, the question is more commonly assumed to challenge the fact that Scottish members at Westminster would continue to vote upon English matters while MPs from England had lost the power to influence Scottish affairs which had been devolved to Edinburgh …According to Mr Dalyell and others, this would create resentment in England and overall constitutional instability. It is argued it could ultimately break the Union.

The Haltemprice and Howden question does not have quite the same euphony as does the earlier West Lothian one. But the more I think about it, the more intrigued I am about the similarities.

The puzzlement arises as we attempt to assess the way in which the democratic process is exercised within a representative democracy. The West Lothian example suggests that sometimes voting rights give an advantage to some voters over others. Under threat is the hallowed principle of one person one vote. The puzzle has baffled a large number of clever people for nearly forty years.

I don’t want to try to resolve the West Lothian thing here. (Although I suspect a good starting point would be to take a systems view, rather than apply the more usual reductive thinking applied). But that doesn’t matter for the point I want to make.

The Haltemprice and Howden Question

To link this conundrum with the current situation, we have to make a few contextual adjustments. Instead of considering representatives voting in Parliament, we now have to consider the next level ‘down’.

That is to say, we have to look at the process in a single constituency, now deciding on its next representative, under unusual circumstances.

Normally, each voter in a constituency is presumed capable of assessing which of the candidates can best represent his or her needs, in a ‘full and fair’ election. The decision in principle and in practice approximates to a vote for the party that best represents each individual casting a vote.

Now consider the Haltemprice and Howden by-election as is unfolding. The incumbent MP, David Davis resigns. The resignation statement implies that he will fight on a single issue, which is to do with a creeping erosion of civil liberties, culminating the Government’s maneuvers over the 42 day detention and related votes last week.

The New Midlothian Question

The new Midlothian question might be put as follows. How should someone vote in the by-election if they want David Davis to represent them, but also want to support the 42 Day Bill? Similarly we could ask the converse question for someone wishing to get rid of David Davis, while wanting to support the bill?

The question illustrates something tricky in decision-making for the voters of Haltemprice and Howden.

Public enthusiasm, and dead parrots

However, David Davis is on to something. There is a public mood afoot to find ways of telling our elected representatives to do something more to meet individual needs and concerns. Not just in Haltemprice and Howden, not just in The United Kingdom, but around the world. I haven’t even had time to digest the news from Ireland yesterday [June 1th 2008] where voters seem to have declared the European Treaty a dead duck.
Or do I mean a dead parrot, or turkey?

Now that’s an even bigger political dilemma.

David Davis and The Halls of Doom

June 12, 2008

David Davis resigns as MP and sets out on a dangerous mission. His actions bring to mind a fantasy adventure, complete with heroes, villains, and threats to the world as we know it

The breaking news lunchtime in the UK [Thursday 12th June 2008] was as dramatic as it was unexpected. David Davis announced his resignation as MP (and therefore as a leading member of The Shadow Cabinet). That would be news enough. Such a resignation suggests previously undisclosed personal reasons, or some scandal brewing.

But the story that emerged was even more astonishing.

The Midday News

I caught the news around midday, via a soundless news feed above a bustling coffee-shop. Pictures of Mr Davis and the feed appeared, with the running text below stating that he was resigning to oppose the impact of the Government’s policies on individual freedoms. Wow!

Then more images, of Mr Cameron in supporting role. The text reported that he fully endorsed the actions of his erstwhile shadow Home Secretary.

Brilliant, Barmy, Bizarre?

My initial reaction was one of astonishment, and I’ve reproduced here to the notes I scribbled at the time

Why? The Government’s popularity has never been lower. The next election is for the Conservatives to lose. Yesterday’s Pyrrhic victory in the 42 day detention vote seems only to have added future problems for Gordon Brown. Prospects over the medium-term are unlikely to get better.

What’s happening? One possibility is that David Davis has had an impulse to seize the moment, grasp an opportunity, a tide in the affairs of men. Possible but unlikely.

More likely, (but still bizarre) is that it is part of a fall-back plan of what would the Opposition do, if they lost the vote yesterday. It’s been suggested that David Davis has been more emotionally committed to opposing the 42-day proposals than his leader. Might a strategic discussion had taken place with Davis exclaiming: ‘We most oppose it. I feel strongly enough to resign over this”? Or something like that.

If that happened, I’m still baffled how the argument won the day over the view of more cautious souls arguing there was no need to rush the Government into defeat, just let it continue on its blunder-prone way. As it is, the Conservative Captains Courageous have engaged on an unexpected option.

A Risky Shift

[Thirty minutes later, still watching the mute screen] It took Nick Clegg all of a couple hours to make his mind up. His party would not take part in the proposed bye-election. Now that’s easier to call. Almost a win-win. Why risk being accused of wasting the electorate’s time and money when a seat from the sidelines will be more comfortable and risk-free.

So it’s over to Gordon. At least he has a chance to join battle outside Westminster, with a few strong weapons in his armoury. If David intends to fight with the sword of truth in defense of individual freedom, Gordon has (for the moment) the encouragement of popular support. It will be a fascinating battle.

A Few Hours Later

I reconnected with my PC to learn of the media’s wall-to-wall coverage of the story. Nick Robinson has got away to a flier with an insightful posting, and a monster number of intense comments. He argued that

This resignation is quite extraordinary and without precedent that I can think of in British politics… David Cameron has lost control of his strategy. This was not his decision. He was not asked for his agreement. He was informed late last night by David Davis that he was going to do this come what may. That he was going to resign and trigger this campaign. This is not a campaign that Mr Cameron wants, it is not part of his strategy and indeed, I am told by senior Tories who know Mr Cameron well, that this was David Davis’ personal decision and will be his personal campaign

By mid-afternoon David Davis had confirmed that he had contacted Nick Clegg after the vote last night, so that the Lib Dem reaction while swift, was not as speedy as I suspected.

The BBC quickly updated the story

[David Davis] told reporters outside the House of Commons he believed his move was a “noble endeavour” to stop the erosion of British civil liberties. He is one of the best-known opposition MPs and his resignation came as a complete surprise in Westminster. He told reporters outside the Commons: “I will argue in this by-election against the slow strangulation of fundamental British freedoms by this government.”

The great number of comments to Nick Robinson’s post split in as curious a way as everything else about this episode. The majority were vehemently behind David Davis, and more than a bit hostile to Robinson. And most of the other comments were unprintable, (another surprise) and held up for clarification or rejection after moderation.

Brave Words and their Consequences

I rather accept the view that Mr Davis is taking a principled stand. However, I couldn’t help thinking of another speech some while ago, which ran along similar rousing lines:

“If it falls to me to start a fight …with the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of fair play, so be it. I am ready for the fight.”

That was Jonathan Aitken, who later was found severely wanting. Brave words, but it does put a lot of pressure on the hero to maintain the deeply-principled standards for which he has chosen to fight.