Does UKIP’s performance in Clacton and Heywood & Middleton mean the ‘big three’ are in serious trouble?
Douglas Carswell’s crushing victory in the Clacton-on-Sea by-election should come as a surprise to precisely no-one. The seat was described as the most-UKIP friendly in the country, Carswell had a huge personal following – demonstrated by the mass exodus from the local Tory association to his UKIP branch – and the UKIP propaganda machine has been working overtime ever since the by-election was called.
However, the sheer scale of the victory – 59.7%, a rare majority, with the jump from 0% (UKIP did not previously contest Clacton) the biggest in by-election history – should of course be noted by anyone with an interest in the growing right-wing force. As birthday presents go, this one is probably not David Cameron’s best. Carswell did not just beat the Tories, he thrashed them, and such a result will be invaluable to UKIP come 2015.
Of course, Clacton was not the only by-election result to be announced during the night – Heywood and Middleton also voted, and they voted to keep Labour in power. However, UKIP came deadly close, with just 617 votes between the two. The Labour victory is important for the party – failure to hold the seat would have been another nail in the coffin of Miliband’s leadership – but the significance of this close call is huge. Farage has long proclaimed that UKIP has a broad-based appeal, attracting defectors from each of the traditional ‘big three’, and the near-success of the party in this northern, working-class constituency – seat of former Labour Prime Minister Jim Callaghan, no less – seems to confirm that.
The Labour party line is that the UKIP surge was driven mostly by the collapse of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat votes, and the nose-dive in turnout to 36.2%. This is quite probable, but that does not excuse the Labour failure to capitalise on this collapse. Anti-UKIP tactical voting should have lent weight to the only party in the seat with a reasonable chance of defeating them, and yet the margin of victory remained pathetically small. Some UKIP members are calling for a recount, and the party’s candidate John Bickley stated that “I’m under no illusions. Another two or three days and we would have won this.” Such a delay would have put the poll in the wake of Clacton and the UKIP landslide there – Bickley is probably right.
Same Old Party?
Winning an elected MP for the first time, will lend a legitimacy to the party that their 24 MEPs and 370 Councillors could not do. So Westminster-focused is British politics in the 21st Century, only a UKIP member in the House of Commons would do to persuade some sections of the establishment to take them seriously. Despite Conservative HQ’s line today that people will not vote for ‘alternative’ parties come 2015, even the most traditionally self-confident Tory must now admit that UKIP are a threat.
The question is, what do UKIP represent – and is it something the British people will ever vote for en masse? The label ‘fascist’ has been applied to the party in the past. Whilst it is an exaggeration, there are fascist elements to the organisation. They can be seen in the party’s de facto English nationalism; in the veneration of a single charismatic individual as leader; in the party’s corporate backing; and in the appropriation of the odd traditionally left-wing policy in order to garner populist support.
Glimpses of UKIP’s more unsavoury aspect are also revealed by those of its members less willing to toe the party line. Though the sagas of “Bongo Bongo Land” and “flood-causing gay marriage” are beginning to recede into the past now, these kinds of people are still present in the party – just masked by an increasingly effective and media-supported propaganda machine. The fact that the blatantly and pathetically prejudiced Alan Craig, former leader of the hard-right Christian People’s Alliance, has defected to UKIP and campaigned for them in Clacton – this a man who equates equal marriage with child abuse – and that UKIP has defended him demonstrates quite clearly that, however much it may have appeared to move on, the party is still stuck exactly where it was ten years ago.
Will UKIP do well in 2015? Almost certainly. Will they increase their vote share? Undoubtedly. Will they pick up a handful of extra seats, the better with which to harass the Tories in Parliament? Quite probably. But will they ever become a force which the people of the UK will select to represent them on a national basis? I doubt it. Not without quite a considerable reformation of the party and a purge of those less salubrious elements within its structure.
Meanwhile, are they a threat to the ‘big three’? The by-elections of the 9th of October tell us, absolutely. And, much as I despise UKIP itself, upsetting the cosy establishment apple-cart can’t be an entirely bad thing.
This article is cross-posted on the author’s blog, Cynical Optimist