In the hit TV comedy The Office, Martin Freeman’s lovably everyman Tim endured a humiliating lack of success in his love rivalry with an overtly working-class character and warehouseman. A few years later, in the Channel 4 sitcom Peep Show, hapless nerd Mark Corrigan vied with Jeff, an actual Scouser – just so you know he’s working-class – for the affections of Olivia Coleman’s Sophie. Both programmes relied on chiming with cultural assumptions about luckless, nice, middle-class blokes against brash, lager-swilling, footie-loving lads, and it was understood that the viewers would root for the former. Yet for most of human history, from the myths of antiquity and the Middle Ages through to the novels of Dickens, Hardy and Lawrence, high and low culture focused on the poor, down-trodden peasant or labourer overcoming the odds to win the girl from the arrogant Prince or sharp-suited executive.
Politics isn’t supposed to be exciting. Elections are generally the exception to that rule. By-elections doubly so. They are, however, about more than excitement. Stunning by-elections can define a parliament. They are a signpost to the future. In 1962, David Sumner resigned as MP for Orpington. His party had held the seat since its creation in 1945; at the 1959 election, he had held the seat with 57% of the vote. Few predicted anything except a Conservative win. After 11 years in power the Conservatives were looking tired and on the day of the election the Liberals won with a 22% swing from the Conservatives. The following year Harold Macmillan resigned as prime minister; the year after Labour won the general election.
In the politics of the Netherlands, a testimonial party is one that exists to accomplish a single cause. So where does the UK Independence Party turn now? Led by the charismatic and ruthlessly right-wing populist Nigel Farage, the UK Independence Party was propelled in a few years from a fringe group to major party status. But since the vote for Brexit in 2016 the party has lost both Farage’s leadership and the cause of its foundation - opposing EU membership - a mantle embraced by Theresa May’s Tories. Farage’s former deputy Paul Nuttall - standing in the Stoke Central by-election - is UKIP’s third leader in four months, having succeeded Diane James who resigned a mere 18 days after being elected.
Campaigns for the Northern Ireland Assembly elections are grinding into gear. Apathy is allowed - this election comes less than a year after the last one, under a system that delivers similar results time after time. Don’t switch off yet, though. If there were ever a year for a surprise result, it’s now. When I say ‘surprise result’ I’m not referring to yet another right-wing populist (thankfully). This election won’t be surprising on a Brexit or Trump level. Nevertheless, though, there have been unprecedented developments. The election itself was sparked by the resignation of Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, which dissolved the power-sharing government.
‘The NHS needs more money’ has now been recognised as a totally undisputed fact by parties across the spectrum. The problem stems more than a willingness to pay - a few years ago a KPMG poll was released stated that 54% would be happy to pay more in tax to fund the NHS - the issue is the system itself. However, we are never going to change it if it remains as Nigel Lawson put it ‘the nearest thing the English have to a religion’. The NHS has long been used as a political football, with Labour and the BMA in particular competing with each other to sing its praises and act as the high priests and hierophants of this most sacred of cults. Watch any Labour politician in a political debate and you can pretty much guarantee within five minutes they will wail about a threat to the NHS from the right.
It is one of the cliches of political life, the old Chinese proverb that it is a curse to live in interesting times. It is a dictum to which Theresa May might pay some attention, even as she savours opinions polls and her convincing win in the House of Commons over Article 50. The EU referendum result has changed Britain’s long-standing trade and security policies; it has also given bloom to a change in its democratic make up. One only has to observe the Commons Brexit debate to acknowledge this. Former Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett may have been more explicit than many when she declared that she believed Brexit would be a disaster before she cast her vote to start exit negotiations. But she was not alone.
That the question of defeat even arises shows the extraordinary weakness of the official opposition in these strange political times. If we accept that 2015’s defeat under Ed Milliband represented a low in Labour’s fortunes, then holding onto two relatively safe seats should - midterm - be easy. The last time the main opposition party lost a by-election was in Romsey in 2000 under William Hague’s dire leadership; the last time a governing party snatched a seat from the opposition was the Mitcham and Morden by-election in 1983 when a surging SDP took 20% of Labour’s vote and let the Conservatives win with a reduced vote share. These are the precedents we are talking about. Neither William Hague nor Michael Foot were regarded as exceptional opposition leaders. And for those who do not follow politics closely, neither went onto general election victories.
The chaos of Donald Trump’s opening weeks in the White House have strengthened the suspicion that his term will end early and unpleasantly. It is even tempting to start a sweepstake on which outrage or scandal will ultimately bring him down. I am going to back an old favourite - Russia. One of the few consistent elements of Trump’s campaign and presidency so far is his subservience to the Kremlin. The reasons for this bizarre behaviour have still not been explained either by Trump or his opponents. Trump insults America’s friends, neighbours and loyal allies on a near daily basis. So why does this extreme nationalist and supposed patriot go to such lengths to avoid criticising an enemy state like Russia?
In late 2014, Barack Obama reached out to Raul Castro, the brother and successor to revolutionary leader Fidel, to begin the “Cuban thaw” - an effort to open up diplomatic and economic ties between the two countries Obama argued that freeing travel and trade between the two countries would naturally loosen the grip of authoritarianism in Cuba. The death of Fidel, dictator from 1959 to 2008, seemed to further mark a new era of US-Cuban relations. Now President Trump is threatening to re-impose sanctions on Cuba on the basis of the need for reforms to improve human rights. Obama’s thaw seems certain to be re-frozen. His hard-line approach gained Trump approval from the Cuban exiles who lined the streets of Florida to celebrate Castro’s death. Cuban-Americans are demographically unique in US politics for their support of the Republican Party, driven by hatred for Castro. For them there can be no negotiation with the Communist Party.