What does a by-election 17,104 kms from Canberra mean for Australia?

What significance can a by-election in an English constituency  17,104 kms from Canberra possibly have for Australia’s next Federal election?

The by-election in North Shropshire on 21 December was won by the UK Liberal Democrats by a margin of 17,957 votes to 12,032 and cost the Tories the seat for the first time since 1832.

The outgoing candidate got 63% of the vote in 2019 but had to step down due to a record of sleaze which shocked even some Tories although Boris Johnson, as Scott Morrison would in a similar situation, tried desperately hard to protect him.

The result is doubly significant because it follows a huge swing in June in Chesham and Amersham in Buckinghamshire.

It is significant for Australia because both results were partly due to tactical votes by UK Labour supporters – subtly encouraged by the party. In 2019 the Labour vote was 24% and the Liberal Democrats got less than half that putting them in third place. In 2021 the Liberal Democrat vote went up and the Labour vote fell to around where the Liberal Democrat vote was in 2019.

A similar opportunity is opening up in Australia where prominent Independent candidates are running seats the ALP simply, or probably,  can’t win.

Some of the independent female candidates are:  Kylea Tink (North Sydney), Sophie Scamps (Mackellar), Allegra Spender (Wentworth), Penny Ackery (Hume), Claire Boardman (Flinders), Monique Ryan (Kooyong), Zoe Daniel (Goldstein), Jo Dyer (Boothby) and Linda Seymour (Hughes). They hope to join  Helen Haines, Zali Steggall and others.

Writing in The Conversation Michelle Grattan said: “One of these aspirants may succeed, two if they were extremely lucky. Perhaps the drive will end up nothing more than colour and movement. But however it goes, their challenges bring serious campaign trouble for Morrison.” But it could end up being wrong.

Now the LNP candidates in Australia are as unlike the Tory candidate in North Shropshire as one can imagine. He had a double-barrelled name, campaigned in Barbour jackets and tweeds and was as fogeyish in style as a character from a Wodehouse novel.

Although given his background as a surgeon, army officer and then barrister he might have been equally at home in the less bohemian pages of Anthony Powell novels.

But the parallel here is that he is a chap (bloke in our language) and his opponent was a woman, Helen Morgan, just like the Voices of campaigners.

The other parallel was that the Johnson Government was going through a period of sleaze and corruption which makes the Morrison Government look, if not saintly, at least just very, very serious sinners.

According to The Economist (17 December 2021) the latest Ipsos Mori poll showed the Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, rated as more capable PM than Johnson by 13 points – the first time for a Labour leader since 2008. Starmer is far from being charismatic but solid and dependable apparently plays better than lying clown.

A variety of other national polls show Labour leading by margins similar to the current spread in Australia. This may mean little in terms of the northern seats Labour lost to the Tories in 2019 but if Johnson isn’t forced to walk the plank they may come back particularly as Johnson’s ploy to secure them – ‘a levelling up strategy’ – may be like his frequent Latin quotations and Latinate sentence constructions that don’t add up to much at all.

As Harry Mount said in The Oldie (14 July 2020): “I once asked one of his old Oxford Classics tutors about Boris’s chances of making it to Downing Street. ‘Capax imperii nisi imperasset…’ said the old tutor, quoting the Roman historian Tacitus on the Emperor Galba: ‘He was up to the job of emperor as long as he never became emperor’.”

Back in Australia, where Morrison is as likely to quote Latin or Greek as he is to enunciate a complete comprehensible sentence free of contradictions and evasions, the Labour- Liberal Democrat strategy has been tentatively pursued in the past.

Some times in the past, for instance  Labor supporting polling booth staff have been miraculously converted into dispensers of Independent how to vote cards. Given the success in Indi and other places, and the support Independents are gathering both in terms of volunteers and campaign funds, that convenient Labor assistance will no longer be required and probably not wanted.

Obviously Labor will still want to work hard at maximising the Senate vote – even in previously safe Liberal seats – but it would be very, very strange indeed if they didn’t devise ways to do both that and help the Independents into second place, or close to, on primary votes.