“It’s a protest vote,” they said. “UKIP will never win a seat in Westminster,” they crowed. “They’re all ex-Tories,” they tried to convince. “A vote for UKIP is a vote for Labour,” they claimed, with increasing doubt.
Douglas Carswell stormed to victory in the Clacton by-election, John Bickley came within a mere 617 votes of poaching Heywood and Middleton, a Labour heartland. On a quite remarkable night, both Labour and the Conservatives were left punch drunk, floundering for answers, lying, and resorting to desperate amounts of spin.
The knowledge of polling and Carswell’s personal following made it rather clear early on that Clacton was going to be more of a coronation than a contest. The size of the victory however was unprecedented. A near 12.500 majority on a 51% turnout, Carswell took just shy of 60% of the vote – a 7% increase from when he stood on a Conservative ticket in the 2010 General Election.
But the real story of the evening came up North. Heywood and Middleton has always been a Labour seat, created in 1983 it was originally held by James Callaghan – no, not that one. In just 1997 they carried a majority of over 17,500. Admittedly since then the gap has reduced, but when the seat was retained the seat in 2010 Labour were still around 6,000 to the good. Squeaking to victory by just over 600 votes was not cause for celebration.
Opinion polling suggested Labour were on course to increase their share of the vote by around 10%, mainly aided by the collapse of the Liberal Democrats. That didn’t happen. A puny rise of just 1% was quite frankly abysmal for an opposition party in one of their strongholds. To almost be beaten by a party that has so often been dismissed as a threat to the Right is astounding. UKIP took almost 39% of the vote – for an hour or so it stood as their highest share in a by-election – an increase of over 36% from 2010. In fact, a recount was called for on realization of just how tight it was.
One could argue that if UKIP spent more time up in Heywood and Middleton than they did down in Clacton they may have pinched it. Indeed, if the by-election took place after Clacton, momentum and belief that UKIP are a viable alternative may well have carried them through. Labour were evidently well aware of the threat posed, despite their pitiful efforts to dismiss it. In an apparent urgency to set the by-election date as early as possible and halt the UKIP charge, they didn’t even wait until after Jim Dobbin’s funeral.
The UKIP problem is just an addition to Labour’s growing malaise. Ed Miliband has shown himself to be clumsy at best, incompetent at worst. His approval ratings are woefully poor – lurking at around 20% – and his recent conference speech is already infamous for failing to mention both immigration and the deficit. Poll ratings hovering at around 35% do not suggest they are a party on the brink of government. A combination of weak policies and lame efforts to attack the rich – the poorly thought out ‘mansion tax’ being the latest example – have failed to inspire voters. Neither has a strategy reliant on another party splitting the vote of their opponents allowing them through the back door, possibly hand-in-hand with Nick Clegg.
Even that may not be that simple though. Labour are under threat in areas which previously would have been unimaginable.
The implications of the Scottish Referendum has seen a surge in support for the Scottish National Party who are certain to seriously challenge in the Labour heartlands. Unless further devolution for Scotland is achieved as promised by the No campaign, Labour risk losing a chunk of their 41 Scottish MPs.
However it is the UKIP surge in the North which is most intriguing – Nigel Farage is even teasing the prospect of Labour MPs defecting. Old Labour voters have been left disaffected by Miliband’s leadership, and are flocking to UKIP. Heywood and Middleton is the latest indicator, the European elections provide further proof for UKIP’s growing influence. Open-door immigration has directly impacted the working class, an unlimited supply of labour has suppressed wages and put the squeeze on those who have for so long been staunch Labour voters. The mass immigration promoted under Tony Blair’s government, has served to alienate traditional Labour voter.This Labour is no longer a champion of the working class, UKIP may not have all the answers, but for those who have suffered as a result of immigration, they feel UKIP is their only option.
It is now very much a case of the Conservatives splitting the UKIP vote in the North – the 3,500 Tory votes in Heywood and Middleton effectively cost UKIP the seat. With UKIP the only realistic challenger to Labour in those northern regions, could we see a further exodus from the Conservatives in an effort to defeat Labour? A Conservative vote there is now a wasted one.
No doubt the line parroted will be that strange things happen in by-elections and they don’t necessarily reflect how voters act in a general election – the idea being that a by-election is regarded as a free shot whereas in a general election voters choose who they want to govern the country. To an extent I agree, for the by-election is the agency which has seen the likes of George Galloway elected into Westminster.
But if UKIP ever were a protest vote, they are no longer. Consistently gaining in the polls over the past couple of years, and victory in May’s European Elections was the culmination of what has been an astonishing period. UKIP now has a core vote, a growing number of people are putting a cross in their box not because they are disenfranchised, but because they agree with the party’s policies. The idea that the UKIP vote will drastically collapse sometime over the next seven months is dead in the water. For the main parties to believe it is an act of either sheer ignorance, or staggering naivety.
The Establishment are still not listening, either that or they are not understanding. Listening to MPs trying to explain and counter the continued UKIP success is like listening to robots. Labour choose to ignore the threat they face and take salvation in the fact that UKIP is still more of a Tory problem than a Labour one. The Conservatives are still plugging the line that a vote for UKIP is a vote for Labour – quite frankly, UKIP voters care anymore. The prospect of Ed Miliband in Downing Street rather than David Cameron is now a minor detail.
A by-election in Rochester and Strood is next on the UKIP radar. Defecting Tory MP Mark Reckless will attempt to hold the seat he won in 2010 under the UKIP banner. Recent polling suggests he holds a 9% lead over his former party and the election of Carswell is likely to see that boosted, UKIP could well have a second MP in around a month’s time.
British politics has never been so exciting, or if you prefer, in such a vast state of flux. Whether or not you believe UKIP to be the long-term future is largely irrelevant. Anything that aids the destruction of Labour and Conservatives can only be welcomed, they have had their grubby little hands on this country for long enough.