Greasy Pole: How Not to Spoil Your Vote. And Why

The General Election of 1992. A reminiscence. Going to the local polling station after all the experts had used their surveys and samples and focus groups to let us know that our one and only choice had to be between the hysterical bluster of Neil Kinnock and the plaintive reticence of John Major. Planning to use my voting paper to state the socialist reasons to reject all of them and set out the real alternative. My six-year old son Tom agreed to come with me, probably after his own expert analyses had led him to hope for a consequent happy visit to the local Game Boy stockist; he had not then read any Upton Sinclair or George Orwell or The Communist Manifesto. The polling station was pretty busy with so many people hunched over their voting paper. Not long after I had begun my contribution, when I had barely had time to deal with the negatives of Kinnock and Major, Tom became impatient and embarrassed by my being immobile while so many others were so quickly in and out. When his muttering and sleeve tugging became too intrusive I cut short my mini-manifesto and we headed off for the Game Boy. I blamed thepoliticians.

This was brought to mind by the low voter turn-out in some of the recent by-elections – Corby, Manchester Central, Cardiff South – and the reasons suggested by the political pundits, who so often claim to be The Voice Of The People, that the voters were suffering from a compound of habitual apathy and election weariness. Which did not take enough account of the reports that an interesting number of those who did go to the polls completed their ballot paper not by a cross but a statement of their reasoned opposition to all the candidates and in some cases their disgust with the entire media-obsessed game of politics and its players. This was not apathy but an active statement of choice. Truly, it could have been better – more effective and encouraging – had it been driven by a conscious intention to point towards the valid alternative but it was enough to allow a tremble of optimism that as a habit it might catch on.


Meanwhile in Corby there was a notable turn-out of 42 percent to hint that the one-time steel town had shaken off its flirtation with the undeviatingly self-promoting Tory Louise Mensch. It says enough about David Cameron’s vaunted “A” List of candidates that it should throw up somebody like Mensch and it was to widespread relief that she announced her intention to resign the seat as soon as possible to spend more time with her trans-Atlantic family and her heavily prosperous pop-star manager husband. Which aroused some rumours about the reasons for Cameron failing to make himself aware of her glittering talents. And – perhaps crucially – about the evidence that had she clung on she would have been crushed in the next general election. None of this prevented her, during the by-election, praising her aspiring successor Tory Christine Emmett as “…a true local girl…she’d be a wonderful MP”, apparently unaware that this might have lost Emmett a bunch of votes.

Manchester Central

In Manchester Central, had she dared to show her face, Louise Mensch would not have received a warm welcome. This constituency’s turn-out of 18.16 percent was the lowest since the by-election in Poplar during the unusual circumstances of 1942; it is a place which has never before had a woman Labour MP. In a constituency where, according to one voter, the party could “put a rosette on a dustbin and it would win” Labour offered one Lucy Powell who, although undoubtedly a woman, was considered to be steeped enough in Labour politics – Ed Miliband’s leadership campaign manager and then Deputy Chief of Staff – to be welcomed as a “Labour Party apparatchik”. There was however one niggling doubt about her; in the neighbouring Manchester Withington in 2010 she surprised a lot of people by failing to unseat the LibDem MP John Leech. So that in the recent by-election her candidacy needed to be nourished enough for her to trot out banalities like “We have to think in terms of empowering communities to make decisions for themselves and get people involved so they feel they can aspire”. Well in the end it all went according to plan; the dustbin came out on top and Manchester Central has a new woman MP.


As the polling stations closed their doors and Louise Mensch faded away across the Atlantic attention switched to three other by-elections: Croydon North, (turn-out 26.5 percent) Middlesbrough (25.91 percent) and Rotherham (33.63 percent). The last of these contests was unusually piquant because of its similarity to Corby in the voters’ assumed anger over its MP’s behaviour. Denis MacShane was forced to resign over a succession of matters including some typically extravagant expense claims which brought his integrity into question. One example was a clutch of 19 false invoices which he submitted, described by a Parliamentary Committee as “plainly intended to deceive”. Little wonder that the Respect candidate ran a poster van publicising “Denis MacShame”. Rotherham’s reputation is as a tough town where once they dug coal and smelted steel; it has not elected a Conservative since Labour’s disaster days of 1931. And it has never before had a woman MP. Which raised some searching questions (and a walk-out of members) when the locally prominent Maroof Hussain was beaten to the nomination by a national party favourite Sarah Champion, who went on to win with a delighted UKIP in second place.

None of these elections would have caused any abstinent electors or polling booth essayists to doubt that, at the least, they had appropriate consistency on their side. If capitalism’s current crises have done nothing else they expose the impotent panic among the self-appointed experts – the economists, politicians, analysts and the like – as each of their preferred remedies is exposed as a discredited sham. It is in contrast to that feeble confusion that those who stand aside to put forward the case for a different, cohesively humane system can truly be described as the radicals.

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