Friday, 21 November 2014

Another by-election - another dreadful result

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

And so the media circus named the Rochdale and Strood by-election comes to a conclusion.

And a predictable one at that.

Anyone not expecting UKIP to win here is clearly out of touch with current political reality.

Firstly, it would take an exceptionally abysmal performance for a party with the incumbent MP, which has effectively called the by-election on its own terms, and with the ability to direct all its resources into the constituency to find itself on the losing side. Add to this the media presentation of the election as a straight fight between UKIP and an unpopular party of government in shape of the Conservative Party, and a UKIP victory becomes a near certainty.

That does not mean, of course, that UKIP have not worked the constituency - indeed, they have. The somewhat disingenuous "Vote Mark Reckless for Change" slogan aside, they've done many of the right things to benefit from the Conservatives' tactical mistakes and perceived weakness on the EU and immigration. Indeed, such was the emphasis on immigration that we are now seeing UKIP as something more than an anti-EU membership party; it has morphed into a general anti-immigration, anti-progress party.

The strength of UKIP's appeal can be demonstrated in the reaction to Reckless's careless intervention at a hustings meeting, in which he indicated immigrants would be asked to leave the UK. For any other party, this would have been its undoing. Almost instantly, UKIP distanced itself from its candidate's comments - and then came the claims that his words had been minconstrued, misinterpreted, and taken out of context by a hostile media.

The fact that this was caught on video and the context made abundantly clear, the ease with which UKIP can play the "victim of the media" card is stunning. Not only was UKIP able to escape unscathed by Reckless's foolish intervention, they were actually able to use the alleged media "persecution" to their advantage. This is a tactic that they are becoming increasingly dependent on, given the increased scrutiny on such matters as the party's confused and contradictory position on the NHS, but so far cries of victimisation have won the day. How long they can continue to do so remains to be seen.

One surprise from the result was that Reckless's majority was not bigger. The scale of victory was much less that recent polls suggested, something that will privately be of concern to UKIP. In the General Election, when turnout will inevitably be higher and the Labour vote will not be so easily squeezed, Rochester & Strood would be likely to return to the Conservatives. This will provide perhaps a crumb of comfort to the Conservative Party, who have succeeded in winning only one by-election in the currrent parliament (Newark) and seem to dread by-elections in the same way that Northumbrians once feared a Viking invasion. In both cases, the likely outcome is the same - annihilation.

Interestingly, the media are already asking whether this latest by-election result shows that UKIP has "broken the mould" of UK politics and "become by-election experts". The answer is no on both counts. UKIP should learn some lessons from the SDP (who consistently polled much higher than UKIP is currently). Furthermore, the media commentators making such suggestions need to retain a sense of proportion. UKIP has won two by-elections, both of which were essentially called by themselves following defections, with the territory and timing being ideal. A cynic might suggest that UKIP was particularly anxious for both Carswell and Reckless to trigger by-elections so as to gain some momentum and credibility. What is certain is that UKIP are yet to win a by-election where it deos not hold the incumbency, so I'd hold back from making wild assessments as to its expertise at by-elections just yet.

Moving away from UKIP. it was a particularly poor night for the Liberal Democrats. Another by-election, and another dreadful result. It was predictable, but that does not make it any easier to accept. It was not fertile territory and it was always going to be tough to get our message across given the emphasis on the battle between UKIP and the Conservatives, and the kind of dialogue that inevitably framed the by-election. But there can be no escaping that this is our worst result since the party's inception in 1988, and that's a quite incredible statistic in itself given the scale of some recent reversals. It should serve as yet another reminder of our current difficulties and will (hopefully) result in some sober reflection and action from our campaigns unit. Certainly, the candidate - Geoff Juby - performed as well as could be expected and deserves credit for taking on some of the poisonous rhetoric surrounding immigration. I hope the party thanks him for his efforts - I know how difficult it can be to be a candidate in a constituency where the cause is effectively hopeless, and the thankless task carrying the Lib Dem standard often is. So, many thanks Geoff.

Labour will be licking their wounds too. They cannot afford to take much pleasure from either the Lib Dems' misfortunes or the Tories continuing failures in by-elections. Reduced to 16.8% of the vote in a seat they finished a decent second in 2010, Labour will realise that much of their supporters opted to vote UKIP this time around. Questions remain about how temporary such an arrangement is, and whether this will be replicated on a larger scale in next year's General Election.

In times gone by, Labour would have been set to capitalise on the divided Conservative vote; now they are getting their excuses in early and tying themselves in knots over shadow ministers' foolish tweets.  If this by-election confirmed anything, it is that Labour are unable to provide an effective alternative to the government. This naturally benefits UKIP.

More positively, the Greens put in a credible performance, which was remarkable in the circumstances, polling almost 1,700 votes and finishing fourth (although still losing their deposit). It was their best result since the General Election of 2010. It was equally pleasing to see the Monster Raving Loony Party finish convincingly ahead of Britain First.

And so, this was another by-election that gave us something to think about, but not anything like as much as the political commentators at the Daily Mail would have us believe.

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