Heed the voters who abstained

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The Independent Online
Just as bookies are obliged to be in favour of horseracing, so political commentators are obliged to be in favour of voting. Among the first things one learns at the National Pundit Training Centre, just after the waddle of wisdom and the correct way to load a question, is that we favour all elections. If it weren't for the voters, we would, after all, be unable to carry out our main task, which is to expose as liars, frauds and hypocrites everyone they choose to vote for.

So it is with some trepidation that I have to confess to being entirely on the side of the abstainers in the Dudley by-election, the 30,000 solid souls who ignored the door-rappers and envelope-stuffers and, if they passed near a polling-station, declined to turn their heads. They were by far the biggest slice of Dudley West opinion; and they speak for the nation, too.

Let others accuse them of being intellectually lazy or morally deficient, of being more interested in the Oprah Winfrey show than in the future of British democracy. I prefer to think they were sending a precise and considered message to Westminster, even if it was one that none of the parties chose to reflect on publicly yesterday.

For the reactions from the parties were misleading. First, there was honest John Major admitting that it was all rather unfortunate but believing that "some good" might come from it. The problem, he argued, was basically Tory disunity, and perhaps now the party would be likelier to pull together.

In the cold light of day, though, it was pretty odd that he could find something cheering in the fact that, of the 34,729 people who voted for him last time, fewer than 8,000 could bring themselves to do so this week. It was odder still that he thought Tory division was solely to blame, rather than the aftershock of the recession, the broken tax promises or his own image. And it was downright crackers to predict that this performance would turn the rebels into loyalists. They think he is the problem, and they will surely read Dudley West as a vindication of their argument.

The stay-at-home Dudley Tories were sending him a clear message, which is that his party is not worth leaving the house to support. But, and this is where Tony Blair's understandable enthusiasm may have been misplaced, they were not saying they wouldn't vote Tory at a general election.

Mr Blair and his people say that Conservative voters, including "lifelong Tory voters" are now coming directly over to New Labour. No doubt some are. A few were paraded before journalists at the by-election. When Labour canvassers say they found many more on the doorstep, they were no doubt telling the truth.

But the number of direct Tory-to-Labour defectors can hardly have been great, because the total Labour vote of 28,400 was marginally down on 1992 - and, if we are to believe the Liberal Democrats (which we are, on this occasion only, inclined to do), that turnout already included a chunky proportion of their 7,400 general election support.

The only other explanation is that large numbers of highly politicised voters made a conscious decision to switch their vote to Labour while, at the same time, equally large numbers of ordinary Labour voters didn't bother to turn out.

There is probably some truth in this. By-elections don't mean a change of government, which is what would actually change people's lives, so the less politically committed on all sides are less likely to vote. But were Blair and his team to take this seriously, they would have to ask themselves why New Labour wasn't motivating the core support more effectively.

No politicians, in short, can be over the moon about a contest that failed to move more than 47 per cent of the electorate to vote. Yes, it confirmed the opinion poll findings about the relative strength of Blair's New Labour, which continues to shine asa beacon of moderation and unity beside the Conservatives. But it confirms, too, those polls which have been telling us of a widespread cynicism and indifference about politics. And when so many feel uncommitted or alienated, it is surely wise for everyone to be modest in the conclusions they draw.

John Major ought to have reacted by thinking, once more, about whether he can raise his game. He should have taken his chance to speak more seriously to the voters, promising to try harder to recover their trust, rather than theorising about their "volatility". (Ex-Tory voters, I suspect, would regard themselves as constant and the Government as volatile.)

But Labour should not place too much faith on its historic victory. Every by-election seems to produce a new record of some kind or another. It is a very different thing to win a by-election in a mood of apathy and to turn out the necessary millions across the country to win a majority at Westminster.

It is worth recalling that the vote Labour got this week would have come nowhere near securing West Dudley at the last general election. Labour's job may not seem as daunting as that faced by today's battered Conservatives but it remains serious.

This was a by-election that should have produced a mood of contrite introspection among the political establishment. When the voters refuse to speak, Westminster needs to listen more carefully than ever.

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