Yesterday’s ballot for the parliamentary seat of Barnsley Central resulted in abject defeat for Liberal Democrat candidate Dominic Carman, who came in sixth place, polling fewer votes than the far right British National Party (BNP). This wasn’t the first time the doughty anti-BNP campaigner Carman performed worse than the party he despises: at Britain’s 2010 general election Carman was bested by BNP leader Nick Griffin in Barking, a constituency that not only sounds like Barnsley but though at the opposite end of the country is prey to similar tensions as residents compete for inadequate services and housing stock in a contracting jobs market. The good news for anyone who worries about the rise of the far right—and an opinion poll published last weekend indicated there would be substantial support for a far right party in Britain that abjured violence—is that the BNP came nowhere near winning either Barnsley or Barking.
That is probably the only comfort the Liberal Democrats can draw from the Barnsley fiasco, which also saw their candidate overtaken by the Euro-skeptic fringe party UKIP, the Conservatives and even an independent candidate. The Lib Dem share of the vote fell from 17.2% at the general election, when it came second only to Labour, to 4.1% yesterday. Labour, by contrast, increased its majority, an unsurprising result, one might suppose, since opposition parties traditionally garner protest votes at by-elections. There seems little doubt that protest played a part: Britons are beginning to feel the full pain of budget cuts imposed by the government. But Labour, only out of office since last year, shares culpability for economic pain and has yet to settle under new leader Ed Miliband. Moreover the Barnsley by-election was called after Eric Illsley, the Labour MP who won the seat in 2010, pleaded guilty to fraud during a long-running scandal about the abuse of Parliament’s expenses system. He was jailed last month.
The Liberal Democrats’ fall from grace seems just as spectacular. Ahead of the 2010 elections, their leader Nick Clegg became a vehicle for voters’ hopes. Installed in coalition with the Conservatives as Deputy Prime Minister, he is instead perceived as a drag on Lib Dem aspirations; the architect of getting the Lib Dems into power, he is blamed for the compromises power entails. Last week as Prime Minister David Cameron toured the Middle East, Clegg was also out of the country, telling a journalist he’d forgotten he was in charge of the country. This morning some of his own colleagues may wish he’d forget to turn up to work more often.