On the face of it, last night’s by-elections in Clacton and in Heywood & Middleton provided no major surprises. As expected, UKIP won in Clacton, giving the party its first elected MP, and Labour held on to the Heywood & Middleton seat. But a closer examination of the results provides some notable questions which will be preying on the minds of David Cameron and Ed Miliband in the run up to the 2015 General Election.
Firstly in Clacton, as soon as Douglas Carswell announced his defection this was always going to provide UKIP with its first by-election win. The Conservative aim in this race was to provide a strong showing and to run a close second to Carswell, in order to discourage other potential defectors and to try and dampen UKIP’s momentum. The result in Clacton has showed that this strategy completely failed. Last night political commentators were predicting problems for the Conservatives if they were not within 20% of the UKIP vote. The final tally showed that UKIP actually led the Conservatives by more than 30%. In a by-election with a high turnout (over 50%) this is very worrying for the Conservatives, and cannot simply be put down to a protest vote or Carswell’s local popularity. The Conservatives have a real problem with UKIP in seats across the South and East of England and this will have to be addressed. The next by-election in Rochester & Strood is now critical to the party. Another poor result will seriously undermine Cameron’s authority and could lead to further defections.
The second by-election, in Heywood & Middleton, was meant to be a comfortable victory for Labour, with the party downplaying the threat from UKIP over the past weeks. The final result will provide a huge shock and a wakeup call to the Labour leadership. Labour had aimed to retain a majority of around 1500-2000, but the final majority was only 617. This is a huge result for UKIP and plays into Farage’s narrative that UKIP was capable of challenging Labour in previously safe seats across the North of England. Indeed, some are arguing this morning that if UKIP had placed more resources into this race, and less into Clacton, then they could have won here as well.
The Labour message this morning has focused on the fact that they actually increased their share of the vote (by 0.75%). But in a by-election this close to the General Election, and in a safe Labour area, this was a poor result. There will now be renewed questions within the party around Labour’s campaigning tactics and messaging to voters. Labour tried to run this race on a single issue, the NHS. They have been shown the danger of ignoring critical doorstep issues such as immigration, Europe and economic regeneration. Labour has largely viewed UKIP as a Conservative problem and thus a potential Labour opportunity. Last night showed that this is now very much Labour’s problem as well.
However, this should provide no comfort for the Conservatives. They have their own ambitions in the North, which are under serious threat after their own vote in Heywood & Middleton completely collapsed. What UKIP succeeded in doing in this race was to unify the anti-Labour vote and to take a huge chunk of Conservative voters. As the Conservatives look at their string of marginal constituencies across the North this will be a major concern. A similar UKIP showing across the North in 2015 will split the right wing vote, undermining their capacity to defend marginals and pick up any new seats from Labour.
What of the Liberal Democrats in all of this? The Clacton result provided fresh mirth for commentators as the party came in fifth place and lost its deposit for the for the tenth time in a by-election during this parliament. While they retained their deposit in Heywood & Middleton, the result there was not much better, with the party only winning 5% of the vote. But while these results are no doubt embarrassing for the party, they do not tell us much about their prospects in 2015. The Liberal Democrats would never expect to have performed strongly in either of these races, and are not even pretending that they can effectively compete in most of the seats which will be contested in 2015. Instead, they are now concentrating the majority of their resources and effort on the 150 seats that they think they can realistically compete in.
What last night demonstrated overwhelmingly is that there is now a fourth party in English politics. UKIP has its first elected MP in Westminster, who should retain his seat in 2015, and the party has demonstrated that it can effectively compete across the country. Contrary to CCHQ’s best messaging, the ‘Vote UKIP, Get Labour’ line is losing credibility – and a victory in Rochester & Strood would completely undermine this message. ‘Vote UKIP, Get UKIP’ is the now seeming more credible.
Although victory in Rochester & Strood may also inspire fresh defections and donations, the rise of UKIP is going to create expected teething problems for the ‘young’ party. Farage has driven a narrative that UKIP is not just a one-issue party, however with an elected MP and the possibility of more to come, the party should expect greater scrutiny of its policy platform. Recent flip-flopping on taxation has shown UKIP that there is still work to do here. Secondly, many have commented on Carswell’s veiled references to internal tension in his acceptance speech, and the rumours of how well Farage will deal with the spotlight shining on other members of his party remains to be seen.
The UKIP vote will now be a major factor in 2015. Dreams that the party will drop below 10% are looking increasingly unlikely and this means that the overall result in 2015 looks even more uncertain. What is certain is that last night’s results provided a major headache for both Cameron and Miliband. Both major party’s now need to start taking the UKIP threat more seriously, otherwise they will find themselves receiving more nasty surprises in 2015.