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Friday, 10 October 2014

A tale of two by-elections

And so, inevitably, the media are this morning talking about UKIP.

And Nigel Farage in particular.

As far as the first of these by-elections, at Clacton-on-Sea is concerned, the result was entirely expected. Lord Ashcroft gave up polling in the constituency over a month ago, given the near certainty of a UKIP victory. The sitting MP, Douglas Carswell, who had resigned from the Conservative Party to join UKIP, was a founder of the Cornerstone Group (which campaigns for "traditional" Tory values), something of a loose cannon and a Euro-obsessive and his defection did not entirely come as a surprise to many, including his constituents. Perhaps because of his maverick personality, he had a large personal vote and was popular in his constituency - even among people who did not necessarily share his "traditional" views that gay people should legally be treated unequally, that multiculturalism is a stain on society, that workers' rights should be reduced or that the Firearms Act should be repealed as a matter of urgency.

The result in full for Clacton-on-Sea is as follows:

Douglas Carswell       UKIP        21,113
Giles Watling              Con            8,709
Tim Young                  Lab             3,957
Chris Southall             Green            688
Andrew Graham        Lib Dem         483
Bruce Sizer                 Ind                205
"Laud" Hope             OMRLP           127
Charlotte Rose            Ind                 56

Sections of the media have already been happy to offer their views on the historic significance of this result. Undeniably, the election of UKIP's first MP is a milestone in itself - but the significance of this on the country will only be known in the coming months - will this entirely predictable victory for Carswell give UKIP the momentum to make further gains, starting in Rochester? What this result certainly does not signal is, to quote the UKIP leader, "a shift in the tectonic plates of British politics". UKIP have gone from having as many parliamentary seats as the Monster Raving Loony Party to having as many as the Green Party. Hardly seismic.

What lessons can be learned from Clacton-on-Sea? Firstly, that incumbency matters - and this may not necessarily help UKIP other than in Rochester.  This was as much a vote for Douglas Carswell as it was for UKIP. Secondly, that Labour and the Liberal Democrats did poorly but were inevitably going to struggle in what was portrayed as a straight Tory-UKIP battle. Thirdly, the media continues to ignore the Green Party as a serious force in UK politics and this has a notable effect on that party's standing with the electorate - they are simply not seen as a credible fourth party in spite of having an MP. Fourthly, that the Monster Raving Loony Party is a joke that has long ago ceased to be funny. And, finally, that the media is obsessed with UKIP.

Nick Robinson, writing for the BBC, argues that UKIP "has shown it can win under the first-past-the-post voting system as well as under a proportional system." He also asks "how far UKIP will go?", surmising that "no-one knows but what is beyond doubt is that it has already gone much much further than those who dismissed and insulted it ever thought possible."

Actually, I disagree entirely with Robinson - UKIP have taken much longer to make the "breakthrough" than I anticipated and have done so only through the defection of a Tory MP with a large personal vote. The voters of Clacton-on-Sea returning an incumbent MP is not "change". Neither is it evidence that UKIP has cracked the FPTP electoral system, which will as surely continue to work against them as it did the more popular SDP in the 1980s.

Robinson is right on one count, however: the real question now is how far UKIP will go. None of the major parties, including the Greens, will be sitting comfortably at the minute. And that isn't to do with Carswell's victory in Clacton, but the more significant result in Heywood and Middleton.

Here, Labour held on as predicted - but by the tiniest of margins. Labour may well have held off UKIP by 617 votes, but this was not an endorsement of the Labour Party. Far from it - the campaign has highlighted divisions within Labour and the struggle it currently has, even as a party of opposition, to engage positively with voters. It lacks a distinctive message, or even a sense of purpose and direction. For the new Labour MP, Liz McInnes, to claim this is a "ringing endorsement of Ed Miliband" is frankly ludicrous and says more about the type of party politician the constituents of Heywood and Middleton have elected than it does their views of the Labour leader. Labour will be deeply troubled by this result, not least as it would appear that a large proportion of their support is prepared to vote UKIP in 2015 - while this may not help UKIP significantly, it may well take crucial votes away from Labour in crucial marginal seats. The notion that UKIP appeals only to disgruntled Tories is no longer true, if ever it really was.

The collapse of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat vote in Heywood and Middleton will also concern their respective party leaderships, but this was not fertile territory for either and it is Labour with the major headaches, while the Conservatives will be fearing future defections and the Lib Dems will be asking how they can once again become the kind of party that impacts by-elections rather than being listed among the also-rans. Haemorraging votes is always a concern, even in seats where we have little chance of success, and to be losing voters to UKIP simply underlines the need to more effectively communicate the need for liberal values.

Where will UKIP go from here? It's difficult to say, but the outcome of the 2015 General Election already looks far more difficult to call than previously thought. Certainly, the impact of UKIP is something we should all be concerned about.

1 comment:

Lee Harley said...

How we miss your opinions in the office. A scary concept that UKIP annihilated the competition. Here's hoping that it's a flash in the pan and it will have washed over by May 2015.