Last Thursday, we had two by-elections with two different results: a UKIP victory in Clacton and a Labour hold in Heywood & Middleton.
Douglas Carswell’s victory in Clacton, winning UKIP their first-ever seat in the Westminster Parliament, was widely predicted. The by-election was triggered by his switch from the Conservatives to UKIP, amid mass publicity regarding his reasons for doing so. He was a popular constituency MP as a Conservative, and UKIP launched a massive campaign to make sure he would be re-elected under their banner. Their success is reflected not only in the fact that Carswell gained 59.7% of the votes, but that the turnout was 51%, well above the usual level for a by-election. But they were building on solid ground: in the 2014 European Parliament elections, the Tendring District Council ward in the heart of the Clacton recorded twice as many votes for UKIP (19,398) as the Conservatives (9,981). The swing from Conservative to UKIP had, in effect, already happened, and Carswell capitalized.
In Heywood & Middleton, Labour held on to the seat and even increased their share of the vote by 1% from the 2010 General Election. The turnout was more usual for a by-election at 36%. It was, however, a surprise how close UKIP came to winning the seat: their candidate John Bickley attracted 38.7% of the vote, and Labour candidate Liz McInnes won with 40.9%. An opinion poll conducted four days previously had suggested Labour would get 47% of the vote and UKIP 28%. That this was so far off suggests there was successful campaigning by UKIP in the last few days before the vote. UKIP were, however, a strong second to Labour in the 2014 European elections in this region, so again the by-election results confirm support that was already there.
Mark Reckless has triggered a third by-election in Rochester & Strood, having jumped on the Carswell bandwaggon and switched from the Conservatives to UKIP. He has somewhat earned the reputation of being Reckless by name and by nature, having been first elected as an MP in 2010 and two months later making headlines for missing a vote on the budget due to drunkenness. UKIP didn’t even contest Rochester & Strood in 2010 and the Conservatives will be campaigning very heavily to hold on to it. The problem for them is that UKIP swept the board in Kent in the 2014 European elections, and if the constituency has already swung that way, it will be difficult to reverse that momentum.
The success of UKIP in the 2014 European elections was dampened at the time by the suspicion that people would vote one way in those elections, but return to the “main three” parties when it came to the 2015 General Election. The two by-election results we have had so far suggest that this may not be the case. Will the third by-election confirm this hypothesis? If we have three results that all closely match the 2014 EU voting patterns, it will be enough to say there is a trend: those who voted for UKIP MEPs are also voting for UKIP MPs.
Of course, there are many mitigating factors, the most significant being that Carswell and Reckless were incumbent MPs looking to directly carry their voters with them. By-elections are notorious for producing weird results, and can arguably be placed in the protest vote category. But it is still the case that UKIP are gaining more ground in a Westminster context than had previously been expected – and this comes with its drawbacks as well as its benefits.
If Reckless wins his by-election, we will have two UKIP MPs in Westminster for six months before the 2015 General Election. This will allow time for scrutiny of their actions and put serious pressure on both Nigel Farage’s leadership and the policy-making strategies of the party. If the Conservatives win the by-election (and they are currently holding an open primary so that constituents can choose their candidate), they will have swung momentum back in their favour and Carswell’s victory will look like an anomaly.
It is all to play for, and Rochester & Strood is the one to watch.