Two by-elections gone, but the important one is around the corner

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.

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5 thoughts on “Two by-elections gone, but the important one is around the corner

  1. Both Labour and the Conservatives can seem alarmingly smug and devious and can appear to be treating the public like idiots – what are we supposed to think about their NHS funding plans, for instance?

    Of course, the main parties can’t simply promise everything everyone wants to hear because they know they’d need a proper plan to deliver their promises. UKIP doesn’t have that constraint – and I hope it never will – but as a protest party it can easily pick out the thorniest problems and imply it’ll fix them – without even trying to offer a sensible idea of how that would happen. And so many people are so delighted to hear their own ideas reflected back that they’ll warm to UKIP anyway. Heck, even *I* sometimes think for a fleeting moment, “Oh, that sounds sensible – just fancy, perhaps UKIP’s better than I thought!” when I read some UKIP view that echoes my own otherwise unheeded grumbles.

    If Labour needed yet another reason for getting rid of Miliband, they could consider the idea that by replacing him with someone more politically skilled, who seemed sincere and had a popular touch, then they could appeal to many more left leaning UKIP voters – and thereby set about breaking UKIP’s spell. I wonder if Labour has anyone who’d be up to the job. Do you think it does?

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  2. Possibly Chuka Umunna; he’s come across well when I’ve seen him speak but it’s difficult to tell how much is good delivery and how much underlying substance. As you say though, coming across well is important and Labour could certainly do with a more charismatic leader than Milliband.

    Which UKIP policies have had an initial appeal? I’ve heard a lot of people say that they’re talking more common sense than the other parties, but not many specifics. Is it what they say on immigration, recall elections or something else altogether?

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  3. Well, scrapping HS2. The amount of disruption there’ll be in London is huge – and it spreads into surrounding areas. Homes will be demolished and rebuilt on valuable open spaces. And honestly nobody has managed to explain to my satisfaction why it’s so vital to spend so much in this way. I suspect pockets are waiting to be lined.

    Also I think we need more grammar schools. It seems so wrong that clever children whose parents can’t afford 11+ tutors are still being sent to schools that don’t offer them the pleasure of stretching their minds and racing ahead..

    UKIP don’t say much about how they’d actually deal with these issues, of course.

    As I said, just a fleeting thought 🙂

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  4. That’s fine, thanks for replying 🙂 The Green Party are also opposed to HS2 but as far as I’m aware UKIP are the only party with creation of new grammar schools on the agenda. And I think both of those policies are perfectly workable.

    What I can’t get past is the danger of being such a closed-in country if all of UKIP’s policies (as they currently stand on their party’s website) were implemented. It’s a bit staggering that a party that now has an MP and should be thinking about knock-on effects still says it would ban tourists who don’t have private health insurance from visiting the UK. Until things like that are off the table I just can’t take them seriously as a party.

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  5. I don’t think their views should be taken seriously! Their party is about them and their anger and personal feelings to a disturbing degree. That’s why it bothers me that they can successfully pull MY heartstrings occasionally – it tells me that Farage must be damn good at whipping people up. I wonder to myself if this is a little bit how it felt to be a moderate German in the early 1930s, and I’m grateful that we have far less cause to feel humiliated and angry than the Germans did then.

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