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.