Tractorgate aftermath proves voters want candidate alliances, says Claire Wright

Claire Wright

East Devon independent parliamentary candidate Claire Wright stood for election in 2015, 2017 and 2019, coming second each time. Now the resignation of Tory MP Neil Parish has brought her into the spotlight as a possible candidate for the Tiverton and Honiton by-election. Claire wrote to WestCountry Voices about her reaction to the resignation, and her decision.

 Neil Parish’s announcement that he would resign after admitting he looked at porn in parliament has sparked a significant debate on candidate alliances.

Within minutes of the media reporting Neil Parish’s intention to resign, I received several messages and phone calls from people asking me if I was going to contest his Tiverton and Honiton parliamentary seat.

I ran for the adjacent East Devon parliamentary seat three times as an Independent, coming second each time: in 2019 I gained almost 26,000 votes, slashing a massive Tory majority to just 6,700.

During each campaign I was deluged with emails and phone calls from people urging me to work with the other parties in the hope that they would stand down to allow me a straight run against the Tory candidate.

However, this was not possible. The Labour Party has a policy of running a candidate in every seat, albeit focusing their efforts in target constituencies. The LibDems appear to be more open to persuasion nationally; locally, however, their candidate was determined to run.The Greens had opted to stand aside for me in 2015 and 2017, but decided to run a candidate in 2019.

Interestingly, if the votes from Labour and the LibDems had come to me in the 2017 general election I would have beaten the then Conservative MP, Hugo Swire.

Back to Tractorgate. For several hours I discussed this with political allies and pondered whether I should launch a campaign for the Tiverton and Honiton seat.

I knew I had to make a decision fast. I quickly absorbed early comment by political analysts and studied previous election results in the constituency. It is a significant Tory stronghold: Neil Parish has a majority of over 24,000.

It was nevertheless tempting. In a by-election, key barriers I normally experience would vanish. Conservative voters’ fears of a Labour government, if they cast their vote for me, would not be an issue. And this government is deeply unpopular following a raft of scandals, appalling and cruel policy decisions and a Prime Minister who cannot tell the truth from a lie. All have combined to mean that life-long Conservative voters are deserting the party in droves.

I knew that the national media attention could make up for my lack of ability to deliver leaflets to each house in an unfamiliar and mostly rural constituency, and mitigate the challenges of gathering a team and launching a campaign.

However, within a few short hours I realised that if I put my hat in the ring, I would be splitting the LibDem vote, and potentially hampering the chances of ousting a Conservative representative of the worst government in memory in one of the safest seats in the country.

Although the Labour Party has been the runner-up in previous elections, it has come a distant second, and the LibDems have a history of appealing to one-nation Conservative voters in the South West.

There is a general view among political parties that supporters want them to fly the flag so they have someone they can vote for. In my three general election campaigns, however, the very opposite has been starkly true.

Given the messages I received on Saturday, I decided I should make a public statement on Twitter about standing aside in the Tiverton and Honiton by-election to avoid splitting the LibDem vote – and stating my support for alliances until we have Proportional Representation (PR). This is already used for Police and Crime Commissioner elections in the UK, and is the electoral system used in almost every country across Europe. Unfortunately,  once the Elections Bill becomes law in this country, this too will regress to First Past The Post (FPTP) which favours the Tories.. 

I expected my tweet to be of interest as it was so topical. What I didn’t expect was the monumental level of support it received.

In just a few hours the tweet had sparked thousands of likes, with hundreds of retweets and comments. The total number of likes now stands at almost 13K, with over 1,500 retweets and almost 600 comments, mostly thanking me, with others debating the merits of PR.

My tweet was screenshotted and appeared on PR-campaigning Facebook pages, with hundreds of likes and comments of approval. A few political commentators with large followings also retweeted it with appreciative remarks.

The bind we are in is this. For all the Conservative Party’s outrage about the possibility of a quiet pact between Starmer and Davey, the Tories kill off competition from right-wing parties as soon as a general election is on the horizon, because officials are all too aware that any realistic competition from the right of the political spectrum could fatally wound it.

Nigel Farage twice attempted to challenge the Tories and achieved success, in that he pushed our national politics significantly to the right, with all the associated toxicity that we observe every day.

Farage stood down his Brexit Party candidates from Tory constituencies in 2019. The deal was that the Tory Party effectively morph into the Brexit Party. It has been obvious over the last three years that we are indeed being governed by the Brexit Party, in all but name.

In the meantime, we have three established left-of-centre political parties in England, which almost always run candidates in every seat to “fly the flag” and test their vote. In short, the far-right vote, undivided, can still win with a minority of the votes while the opposition votes are split across the three main opposition parties. Johnson garnered a minority (43.6 per cent) of the total votes cast in 2019 but still ended up with a massive 80-seat majority.

It really looks as though the opposition parties’ approach of standing candidates regardless may now be out of step with voters, many of whom are so disillusioned by our government that they simply want their local Conservative representative ousted.

There are rumours circulating that the next general election will be in the autumn of this year, as the prime minister believes it will be better for him to schedule it earlier than next May, when inflation and the cost of living will be even more crippling – and a recession may be in full swing. He also hopes the electorate will give him a bigger vote of confidence than his own MPs, many of whom are now plotting to move against him.

If political parties are serious about seeing the big picture and addressing the damage done by this government, they will make progressive alliances work. I know it is tough and complicated, but it is possible with determination and fair play.

The worst government in history endlessly cheats by ensuring it change the rules in its favour – see the removal of the Electoral Commission’s teeth, the weakening of the rules on overseas donations, voter ID and the proposed boundary changes. It then plays dirty tricks and smears its opponents.

The only way decent people can defeat these charlatans is by working together. Until we have PR we don’t have a lot of choice, and to get to PR we need this government out: and that means working with the FPTP system to defeat the Conservatives and deliver urgently-needed electoral reform.

Stop press: for an example of the importance of cooperation, take a look at this result:

60.3 per cent of the votes to opposition parties. Conservative elected on a minority vote.

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