I got involved in a twitter discussion last night in connection with the Carfax ward by-election in Oxford. The Labour candidate won but the turnout of 8.6% was extremely low. Carfax is a city-centre ward which has a high proportion of students who, of course, are still on holiday, so turnout was always going to be low. In the same ward in May this year turnout was 36%. The by-election came about through the resignation of the incumbent Labour councillor.
The discussion arose out of my reaction to comments by some LibDem supporters who took the opportunity to criticise Labour for calling the election at a time when the students were away. This theme had started some weeks earlier when the election was called. Noting that the two citizens needed to call an election were both Labour and both not resident in the ward, LibDems cried ‘foul’ and accused Labour of deliberately choosing their timing so that the student vote would be absent.
Whether or not this was a deliberate tactic by Labour I don’t know. I’m inclined to think it was just the way it happened rather than some devious plan, but I have no inside knowledge one way or the other. It did though leave me with a feeling that the LibDems were trying to score political points over process rather than policies.
When the same line was repeated as yesterday’s result was announced it seemed to me rather ungracious of the defeated Libdem candidate and others to respond by returning to the finger-pointing at Labour, an attitude I described as ‘sour grapes’. The discussion that followed conflated the low turnout and the timing of the election, with LibDems placing the blame squarely on Labour. One supporter actually said the result was ‘unfair’, later clarified to mean not illegal, just not fair. I was told that ‘democracy’ is important to LibDems, and they felt a significant part of the electorate had been disenfranchised by Labour’s actions.
I don’t belong to any political party, though those who know me probably have a fair idea of my political sympathies. Here on the blog and on twitter I try to be even-handed and balanced, though sometimes I can’t quite manage to hold the line. Like many others I am concerned about the general disillusionment with party politics felt by so many people, the feeling that there’s no point in voting, that politics and politicians exist in a bubble of their own disconnected from the great majority of people. Turnouts everywhere are worryingly low. Politicians agonise about how they can better engage the electorate. I felt that the tweets I was seeing last night from LibDem supporters could only add to the disenchantment – it was accusatory point-scoring over an issue which was in the past, and with no evidence that I as a member of the public have seen to support the claim that it was a Machiavellian Labour scheme to disenfranchise voters.
To me the final irony is that if the student voters had been in residence the LibDems would probably have come out of the election worse in percentage terms than they did. If Labour really had wanted to give their opponents a drubbing they would have waited another month. Unless of course Labour were not worried about the Libdems at all but were worried about the Green student vote: the Greens ousted the Libdem candidate in the same ward in May this year. But I didn’t see any Greens complaining. So come on, LibDems, get over it and turn your energies to more important concerns.