David Herdson: The Tories should stand in Jo Cox's seat after all

Written by David Herdson on 18 August 2016 in Opinion

The Conservatives have a reasonable case for overturning their decision not to contest Batley & Spen.

Democracy, like butterflies, can be killed by being held too tightly; the instinct to protect and preserve leading unintentionally to its own demise.

The best current example of that instinct in play is the Batley & Spen by-election, where the Conservatives, Lib Dems, Greens and UKIP announced in the immediate aftermath of Jo Cox’s horrific death that they wouldn’t contest the seat. As with many decisions taken in emotion-charged atmospheres, sentiment got the better of judgement.

Opting not to stand was wrong both in principle and in practice. MPs hold their mandates as individuals and although the mass of votes, as in almost all constituencies, will have been for the national party they represent, that doesn’t mean that a party should simply be able to nominate a successor when a seat falls vacant, no matter how tragic the circumstances.

The notion that terrorists, criminals and other enemies of the British way of life shouldn’t be able to affect the democratic process has been made and rejected before.

Not only did the other main parties contest the Eastbourne by-election in 1990 after the murder of Ian Gow by the IRA but the Lib Dems gained the seat from the Conservatives.

During World War II, despite the wartime truce between Labour, the Liberals and Conservatives (who were in coalition together), several seats changed hands when minor parties or independents made gains, including the first-ever SNP victory.

The important point here is that the gains and losses in those seats occurred because that’s what the voters wanted.  They had the knowledge of the circumstances of the election and of the candidates and parties contesting and made the choice to switch given that.  Other constituencies were equally given the chance to change their representation and opted not to but either way, the people were given their voice.

As then, so now.  Jo Cox cannot be re-elected. Those who placed their faith in her and the Ed Miliband-led Labour Party she represented quite obviously do not have that choice. There will be a new candidate and he or she will represent a party in a very different state.

Who can say whether that’s what the people of Batley & Spen want? Well, they can, through an election – as they should be able to.  In fact, there almost certainly will be an election because at least two minor parties are planning to contest it.  That of itself is dangerous: both fringe parties are likely to receive considerably more coverage and support than they would were the other mainstream parties besides Labour standing.

Not that going back on that earlier commitment is easy. If the Tories and Lib Dems do nominate candidates, they’d undoubtedly be accused of seeking to make political gain out of personal tragedy, particularly given recent polling.  It’s an emotive argument and one can well understand party leaders not wanting to be on the receiving end of it.  All the same, such arguments were made in 1990 too and were rightly rejected.

The Conservatives in particular have a reasonable case for changing their mind.  The decision not to stand was made by David Cameron.  It would be perfectly legitimate for Theresa May to revisit it, particularly now that the intensity of the moment has passed and given the uncertainty of who Labour will nominate.

Indeed, the uncertainty of the future of Labour as a whole has to be a factor.  More than 80% of the Parliamentary Labour Party has no confidence in its leader, yet Corbyn might well be re-elected before the by-election.  If so, what exactly would be the mandate given by Labour’s selection process to the Batley & Spen nominee and how does it mesh with that given to Jo Cox?  That conundrum can only be best answered if the nominee has won, rather than been gifted, the seat.

One concern many will have of a properly contested by-election is that the tone would be inappropriate to the former MP’s memory.  There is a simple answer to that: the parties could pledge to fight a wholly positive campaign.

Tempting though it always is to attack opponents, their candidate, leader and policies, if the rationale for not standing aside is that the electorate deserves a proper choice then it becomes incumbent on the candidates to promote themselves rather than simply becoming the default option of ‘not the other’.  With a new leader and a record in government to promote – as well as the local candidate’s merits – the Conservatives could adopt that route without dishonouring Cox.

Is it feasible to expect parties, or some of them, to restrain themselves from attacking an opponent, particularly when that opponent is down?  For a single seat, in special circumstances, it should be.  It’s not as if the public aren’t aware of the wider issues.

Assuming that May is not planning an autumn election (and I would work on that assumption), the people of Batley & Spen should be given not the token vote that is currently their likely fate but a meaningful choice between the options that any other by-election would offer up.  After all, in what way is democracy protected when the electorate are denied it?


About the author

David Herdson is a political commentator and Conservative Party activist.

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