I was asked on Sunday by one of my friends if UKIP’s win in last Thursday’s by-election in Rochester and Strood was proof that UKIP were damaging the Conservatives more than other parties. In the manner of a true politician, I answered “Yes and no” – because I think the Rochester by-election revealed that all of the major parties are facing problems.
The Conservatives are not the only party to lose votes to UKIP – every major party in the by-election lost around 15% of their vote, and all things considered their vote held up remarkably well given that by-elections always produce a vote against the government. So UKIP are not just hurting the Tories. The problem however, is twofold:
(1) So far UKIP are only persuading Conservative MPs to jump ship. I suspect that is for the very simple reason that UKIP’s modus operandi is to get Britain out of the EU – and by and large most Labour and Lib Dem MPs are perfectly content to stay in Europe.
(2) The votes being lost from Labour and the Lib Dems (in the round – I suspect there aren’t many straight switchers from the Lib Dems to UKIP!) are votes that usually switched to the Conservatives. Labour will already be achieving a swing from the Conservatives by gaining former Lib Dems – the Tories cannot afford to lose these other swing voters.
The Lib Dems had a truly dreadful election – less than 1% of the vote and a mere 349 votes. They really have to be afraid of how badly their vote is going to collapse, and I would say even more afraid of how badly the cost of lost deposits is likely to affect them. Unless the party can gain a sense of pride and purpose, there is a genuine possibility that they will be utterly insignificant within a few years.
The biggest surprise however, is the magnificent mess Labour got themselves into. However much the party do their expectations management, there is no losing sight that Rochester and Strood was a Labour seat from 1997 until 2010 – they beat Mark Reckless twice. This should have been a moment like the Crewe and Nantwich by-election in 2008 – a large swing by the opposition against the government, indicating an opposition ready to govern. Instead of which, the party finished a distant third, and former Shadow Attorney General Emily Thornberry managed to make headlines for all the wrong reasons due to an ill-judged tweet (my comment on this to follow this week). The major worry for Labour is that they have banked all along on scaping home without appealing to a wide base – but their even their base vote seems less sturdy than before.
So good news for UKIP? I honestly don’t think it is that simple. Yes, they won the by-election. But the majority was nowhere near as big as predicted, and it is worth remembering that they had the benefit of the incumbent MP standing for them. The British electorate have always been prone to vote against a government in office – and right now the electorate is sick of all the major parties. In the same way I was convinced the Labour lead for much of this parliament has been soft, I am convinced the UKIP projections in the polls are soft. The voters are understandably cross with how distant their politicians are, but I am under no doubt that when faced with the ballot paper, voters will be asking who they want to have the keys to 10 Downing Street. I’m still not persuaded that UKIP have broken through, or that they have the means to hold the balance of power they want to have next May.