The lessons of Crewe for both main political parties

The result of the Crewe by election was worse than Labour’s efforts to spin it before the defeat. Even the Labour spin machine could not bring themselves to say the Conservatives needed a swing of over 20% to have a “good night”, and were suggesting the Conservative majority needed to be over 5000 to show progress. Well it was.

Labour’s candidate made a dignified speech on hearing the result, sounding as if she wished to fight the seat again at the General Election. In her subsequent interview she showed she had not understood. She told us the Labour vote had stood up well: all that had happened was more Conservatives had come out to vote. My experience – and indeed the experience of most others who went to Crewe and talked to people there – was very different. Labour voters switched to the Conservatives in significant numbers. On a similar turnout to the General Election Labour’s vote was well down.

The most remarkable thing about the election was the size of the turnout. Normally in a by election to a Parliament where the government has a large majority turnout falls, as voters do not think they can make any difference to the national situation by their vote. On this occasion voters wanted to send the government a big message that they are fed up with the way it has been running the country, so they voted in large numbers. They decided by a big margin that the Conservative candidate would make a good MP, and decided that only the Conservative party could defeat Labour. These are all worrying developments for a party in government that has survived so far by helping keep the opposition split between Lib Dem, UKIP, Green and others to make it more difficult for Conservatives to win, and by vilifying the Conservatives in crude and personal ways. On this occasion none of these strategies worked. Support for minor parties fell as people realised they needed to vote Conservative to change the ruling party in Crewe.

The issue today is what will Labour learn from all this – and what will the Conservatives do next, based on this positive development for them?

If Labour is to “Get it” as the new MP for Crewe would say, they need to understand both the message of the voters, and to appreciate the changing social and economic structure of a place like Crewe if they want to be in contention there in the future.

The message was simple to grasp, and the media have understood it. People feel far too squeezed. High food prices, surging petrol prices, high Council taxes, the ending of the 10p tax band and rising energy bills have left people feeling badly off. They now fear the family bills and are short of cash to pay for the basics for themselves. This affects people on incomes above the average with commitments, as well as hitting those on below average earnings especially hard. They understand that the government is not to blame for all of this, but they cannot stand the government’s high tax and waste policy which the government could change. They do blame the government for the tax rip off at the pumps, for the Council taxes and the 10p band fiasco. They do understand that the government is making the squeeze on them all the tougher, because the government itself will not cut its claims on people when incomes are under pressure.

The changes in the constituency are more subtle, but in a way more important for future elections. I am pleased to say the big gap between north and south is notably closing on the new private estates of Crewe, let alone Nantwich. Out on the doorsteps yesterday in the suburbs of Crewe I could just have easily been out and about in my own southern constituency. I found many pleasant owner occupied homes lived in by house proud people who want to be able to do things for themselves. They put up with the manic round of by election leaflets and political visitors and gave me a friendly indication they had already voted or were about to when I called. Like my constituents, they expect government to be kind and generous to those in need, but to leave the many capable people with enough of their own money to go about their daily lives with an independent spirit. Far from worrying about Tory toffs, many wish to be upwardly mobile and see nothing wrong with people like their new MP being well educated and well spoken, wishing to devote their lives to public service. Prosperity is the death watch beetle in old Labour’s timbers. It is the threat which led to Blair’s Tory lite NU Labour image making. Prosperity damaged or spurned by a tax and waste Labour government will turn on that government and demand something better from the alternative party of government.

The Conservatives too can learn from this welcome change of the political climate. The new MP made a generous and inclusive acceptance speech, paying full tribute to the deceased Labour MP and pledging himself as he should to work for all the voters of his new constituency. Nor did he mince his words over what needs to be put right by the government. The Conservatives now can show they have learnt from the dreadful years of 1992-2005, by showing a passion for public service and a sane humility in victory. As more policy announcements are made in the long run up to the General Election, people will be watching carefully to see how the Conservatives can contain the public debt, gain much better value for money from each pound spent by government, and leave sufficient of the proceeds of growth for tax reductions. Technically it is not difficult to do all three, as the waste and undesirable spending is so large. Politically it is more difficult as there is still cynicism about politicians’ ability to do these things, and there will be endless Labour disinformation telling us that every pound they currently spend is well spent. The voters of Crewe have told us what they think about that! Therein lies the Conservatives opportunity to help make people’s lives better. Conservative Councils can do that already on a modest scale. We look to them to help prove the case.

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16 Comments

  1. Stephen
    Posted May 23, 2008 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    There's a certain satisfaction to be taken from the irony of the voters of Crewe and Nantwich doing exactly what Labour asked them to; voting for the local candidate and telling the toff to (go -ed) back to her Welsh mansion and her entry in Burke's Peerage.

    The Labour campaign was so utterly shameful (the BNP would have struggled to sink lower) that many on the left are as delighted as the Tories are at the result.

  2. haddock
    Posted May 23, 2008 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    John,
    I am cheered by the results but am afraid that the Conservative Party don't 'get it' either. The loss of a seat for labour should not be ascribed to the 10% tax fiasco, the ordinary man was fed up to the eye teeth before that. The pity of it is that your party can do little to change things; fine words and well meaning promises maybe but the things that concern us (those away from the sheltered world of Westminster ) are : immigration, stupid bin tax/rules, green taxes, rule from Europe, closure of post offices, ID cards, snooping, smoking bans… the list goes on and on.
    Could you be provoked into a post outlining just what a Conservative government could do on these matters ?
    Oh yes, I know all these "issues could be addressed" but, being an old fashioned type I would prefer a "problems could be solved by" approach

    Reply: I have offered solutions to a number of these problems and will continue to do so. Most of them come down to spending less so taxing less, but using the proceeds of growth more for tax reductions and cutting out waste. The party has set out hwo it would impose controls on migrant numbers.

  3. haddock
    Posted May 23, 2008 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    PS
    I suspect the true answer to each is

    " we will ask the EU if we can do something…..we will make the strongest representations……"

  4. Tony Makara
    Posted May 23, 2008 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    The stories of people eagerly queuing to vote against the Labour government are facinating. This is ususally the sort of thing we see in countries where people have been long oppressed and long for political change. Labour's campaign was like something from 1983 with its ridiculous stereotypes and language based on class-hate. Tasmin Dunwoody was one of the worst Labour candidates I have ever seen, she didn't have one single redeeming characteristic (personal comments against her removed -ed). When people saw Tasmin Dunwoody they saw a manifestation of the hard, uncaring, bullying Labour government that has been making their lives so difficult. Those people who queued at the polls reflect the feelings of a nation which is sick of being put on and put down by an arrogant government that swaggers over them.

  5. Rose
    Posted May 23, 2008 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    The comment which summed it all up for me was on Question Time last night when a man in the audience said he would rather have an upper class twit who gave a straight answer than a working class boy or girl who didn't.

  6. Freeborn John
    Posted May 23, 2008 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    My congratulations on a historic first by-election gain in a quarter of a century. Even if this is an omen rather than the day of judgement for Brown I think you and your colleagues can feel entitled to enjoy the bank holiday weekend.

  7. MartinW
    Posted May 23, 2008 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    Of course, we are all delighted with the result. but if I may comment on the BBC's coverage, and in particular the continuing bias of the World at One. Today, 23 May, the World at One devoted much of its programme to the by-election, but the coverage was extremely unbalanced. For the Conservatives, they had one 15 second excerpt of David Cameron's speech in Crewe, but for labourites, they had Gordon Brown (20 seconds) and then a number of interviews with Labour spokesmen, including John Grogan, Ed Milliband, John Donaldson and Tony Lloyd (more than 11.5 minutes). So by my rough reckoning, the airtime provided by the BBC for Labour was something like 45 times that allowed to the Conservatives. This is, however, unsurprising. The same happened when Boris won the mayoral election. The BBC Trust ought to investigate political balance in news coverage, not only in the World at One, but also in PM, but I doubt they will.

  8. John
    Posted May 23, 2008 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    In the meantime we have to wait two more years watching our beloved country go down the pan with probable thousands of job losses, certain ever escalating universal price rises whilst 'Captain' Brown steers us evermore towards the iceberg. Time for mutiny methinks!

  9. Donitz
    Posted May 23, 2008 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    Socialism isn't working, even in Crewe.

    Recent conversations along the lines of "I've always voted Labour. Torries are Toffs."

    My reply is always the same "yes mate, but your being fleeced"

  10. Matthew Reynolds
    Posted May 23, 2008 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

    I am delighted by this result ! This is a death sentance on Labour – with the excecution due to be carried out at the 2010 general election . It is superb to think that Labour voters are going Tory – a 17.6% swing proves that we can get a decent majority at the next general election .

    We can pledge to ease the burden on the family finances by closing down many of the QUANGO’s that cost a bomb while just duplicating pointless work & providing work to talentless jobsworths who mainly support Labour and ploughing the money into raising the basic personal allowance to say £12,000 p/a . £12,000 p/a is a pittance compared to what MP’s get in expenses & it is disgusting that lower paid people & struggling folk in the middle have to pay too much tax to fund tax credits that destroy the lives of the working poor & a wasteful QUANGO state .

    There is now no excuse for the Tories not heeding the anger of the electorate & offeing a remedy to the disgraceful Brownite waste that causes the high taxes blighting our economic prospects as a nation . A landslide awaits if we pledge spending cuts to fund protecting people who have paid too much tax and who cannot afford it . Faster GDP growth & more social mobility are not a bad idea after all…..

  11. John B
    Posted May 23, 2008 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

    Well yes, I am also delighted with the result; but I am waiting for some further Tory policies. It would be disappointing, to say the least, if a Tory government in a year or two's time failed fully to grasp the opportunity to present a different vision of a free society.

  12. Bazman
    Posted May 23, 2008 at 11:46 pm | Permalink

    Good housekeeping? Laugh! How many politicians do not promise this? Britain is a class ridden society, never has it been so difficult to rise above ones class, the labour party has done nothing to change this and who in their right mind believes the Tory party with 'We are in charge' ,Will ever change the status quo?

  13. DennisA
    Posted May 24, 2008 at 12:35 am | Permalink

    I hope we will get no more silly statements about a Conservative government matching Labour spending:
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1021343/S

    Since 1997, the amount raised by income tax went up 80 per cent, council tax payments rose by 100 per cent, and inheritance tax demands were up 137 per cent.

    All this cash allowed Labour to go on an unprecedented spending spree. Between 1997 and 2007, Gordon Brown spent an extra £1trillion of our money on schools, hospitals, pensions, the police and social services.

  14. William
    Posted May 24, 2008 at 5:36 am | Permalink

    Mr Redwood

    For only the third time in my life (I am 47) I perceive a shift in the tectonic plates of British politics.

    The first culminated in the general election of 1979 when the effect of 30 years of centralised economic control had brought the country to its knees. The central point at that stage was that the socialist economic model simply did not work, it failed to do what it said on the can (as, indeed, has been the case in every country which has adopted it before or since).

    It was inevitable that: (i) it would take time to turn the ship around and, sadly, (ii) it would cause a great deal of pain to many people whose livelihoods depended on the bankrupt state industries.

    Once the ship had been turned and the economy had been placed on a sensible free-market basis the argument shifted. Instead of "how should the economy be controlled?" the question became "what should be the consequences of a free-market economy?".

    I believe firmly that most people have a great sense of fairness and that this gives the answer to that question.

    A vast number of people (I would suggest the majority of the voting public) work hard, live honest lives and expect decent health and education provision for themselves and their families.

    They do not have the means to pay for private schooling nor to pay for all the medical care their families need; but they expect, with justification, that payment of one-third or more of their income in taxes should result in schools and hospitals of a reasonable standard. They do not expect or ask for Eton and St Bartholemew's at the end of every road, simply for a reasonable standard of provision. That is the fair result of the taxes they pay, particularly when the economy is on a sound footing.

    Nothing causes discontent more than a sense that we are not being treated fairly and by 1997 there was a sense of unfairness in the way the new economy was treating the majority.

    Mr Blair's great skill was in identifying this and playing to it in everything he said. Even I, as a fervent supporter of the changes to the structure of the economy made since 1979, wavered in the polling booth in 1997.

    The third shift in the tectonic plates is occurring now and I believe a sense of unfairness in the way the government is acting is again at the heart of the change.

    This time it is not just a sense that the overall wealth of the country should be able to provide better education and health care, it goes much deeper.

    On the economic front: hitting the successful with punitive taxes is economically nonsensical, but more importantly it is seen as unfair by the vast majority of people in this country. Taxing those on low and middle incomes in the name of improved public services and then increasing the effectiveness of those services in tiny proportion to the increase in taxation is seen as unfair. Increasing council taxes by double the rate of inflation and then cutting back on the single most important service – refuse collection – is seen as unfair. Taxing those on low incomes and then requiring them to fill out complex forms in order to claim some of that tax back is seen as unfair.

    There are many more examples of unfairness relating to tax but I believe the feeling that we are not being treated fairly involves much more than tax.

    The whole "regulation" ethos gives the impression that teachers, doctors, nurses, police officers, fire fighters and so many others cannot be trusted to perform their difficult work to a proper standard without the government looking over them all the time. The few bad ones might be discovered (although there is greater control from peer-pressure than from government threats), but all feel threatened all the time. It is unfair.

    My contribution is already too long, so I will get to my central point.

    I believe that the issue of greatest concern after 11 years of the current government is the need to treat everyone fairly and, in particular, to ensure that those who are most badly affected by inflation are treated fairly.

    Get the hard working people on modest wages out of income tax and then get more of them out of income tax. When there is capacity to reduce higher rates of income tax, increase the lowest threshold again and again and again. Reward honest hard work, reward those for whom an extra £10 a week makes a real difference.

    Allow those caught in the benefit trap to escape that trap in the knowledge that working will make a significant difference to their lives.

  15. mikestallard
    Posted May 24, 2008 at 8:14 am | Permalink

    Lessons from Crewe:
    1. "immigration, stupid bin tax/rules, green taxes, rule from Europe, closure of post offices, ID cards, snooping, smoking bans….." Haddock's comments are completely right. Brussels is at the bottom of all of these. But, John, you already know that.
    2. I have no doubt, personally, that the Conservatives will win the next (imminent) election and they will clear up a lot of the stupidity, waste and ignorant bossiness of the present time.
    3. It is also good to note that BBC type liberalism is now on the decline too, having become the national religion for so long. Personally, I should include Global Warming in here too. The BBC may perhaps, under the Conservatives, go the way of Sir Ian Blair……
    4. I think, too, that Socialism has had its day. This means that the Liberals will be the opposition. This can only be good.

  16. Anna Nguyen
    Posted January 9, 2009 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    hi people .

  • About John Redwood


    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, and graduated from Magdalen College Oxford. He is a Distinguished fellow of All Souls, Oxford. A businessman by background, he has set up an investment management business, was both executive and non executive chairman of a quoted industrial PLC, and chaired a manufacturing company with factories in Birmingham, Chicago, India and China. He is the MP for Wokingham, first elected in 1987.

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