Which of the following is most important to you: Ebola, ISIS, or UKIP? Does it matter more that some experts predict a worldwide epidemic claiming perhaps 1 million lives, that at this moment innocent women and children are being murdered in their thousands because of their ethnicity or beliefs; or that a maverick Tory MP won a by-election in Clacton?
I think I know what your answer would be. It is right that we have sent 750 military personnel to West Africa, including a Royal Naval ship and helicopters to fight what could so easily become a global catastrophe; and it is right that we have sent warplanes to help protect the innocent and prevent genocide in Iraq. Yet historians in years to come will wonder that those two great and grave matters; together with others such as the warnings from the International Monetary Fund that the EU economy may be stalling, were forced off our front pages by a by-election?
So it is only right that we consider very carefully the messages which the electorate sent us in Clacton, Heywood and Middleton and elsewhere. The fact is that voters are not happy. They are worried above all about ‘immigration’ (although probably slightly unclear about exactly what they mean by it); they are unhappy about the EU’s interference in our everyday lives; they are concerned about crime and the general erosion of our traditional values and way of life. Those and so many other less-defined annoyances and concerns merge in a by-election to ‘giving the traditional parties a good kicking.’
The Conservatives in particular must listen very carefully to that message and seek to redefine their central core message and beliefs. The Labour Party are in just as much a difficulty, especially in the aftermath of the Scottish Referendum and the collapse of their support north of the border. And our poor old partners in coalition, the Lib Dems, are just such a hopeless case as to be in need of terminal care. All three traditional parties must wake up to the message from Clacton and re-think their approach to their electorate.
However there is one message which has been too often parroted on our screens over the last few days with which I fundamentally disagree. And that is that the Clacton result demonstrates a generalised dissatisfaction with our political systems and with Westminster in general. There is absolutely no evidence that that is the case. My own experience locally - in my regular school visits, in talks with businesses and public bodies, in my surgeries, in meetings with constituents of all kinds, and at the excellent Any Questions broadcast last Friday from John Bentley School in Calne - is that people feel just as strongly about politics today as ever they did. It’s just that their party political allegiances may be more fickle than they traditionally were. People are much more concerned about individual issues than about the generality of party politics.
It’s not the by-election which matters. It’s the messages which lie behind that maverick result. And we traditional politicians from thee parties must now listen very carefully to them.