On Friday, 10th of October, it was announced that the UK Independence Party (UKIP) had claimed its first seat in the House of Commons. The seat in Clacton was taken by ex-Tory Douglas Carswell, who defected to UKIP at the end of August. In another by-election, in the constituency of Heywood and Middleton, Labour MP Liz McInnes clung on to her seat, despite a huge UKIP surge.
Philip Mansell reviews the by-election results and their impact on British politics…
So, what does this tell us about the state of British politics seven months away from a General Election? UKIP now has one MP, the same as the Green Party, and as Respect. It nearly had two, Labour holding Heywood and Middleton by only 2%, with UKIP taking 39% of the vote. In this seat in 2010, UKIP took a mere 3%. On paper, the results of these by-elections are terrifying for Labour. But they are even more terrifying for the coalition. The Lib Dems were not expected to fare well in these seats, and that pattern will also almost undoubtedly follow in May on a national scale. The Conservatives, however, whilst not particularly hopeful of taking either seat, would surely have hoped to have lost in a less catastrophic fashion.
Carswell’s victory in Clacton was a surprise to absolutely no one. A popular MP, his seat was never in danger. UKIP’s victory in Clacton represents a constituency loyal to their MP rather than one which is suddenly enamoured with UKIP. This being said, the manner of defeat for Conservative candidate Giles Watling is truly demoralising for the party. Taking only 24% of the vote (to UKIP’s 60%), alarm bells must be ringing in Conservative HQ. The junior partner of the Coalition, the Lib Dems claimed only 1.3% of the vote, a decline of nearly 12% from 2010. How many more seats will this happen in in May 2015?
The Heywood and Middleton seat by-election was fought for entirely different reasons. Long serving Labour MP Jim Dobbins passed away at the start of September, leaving the seat unoccupied. McInnes was chosen as the Labour candidate, and pollsters predicted an easy win for her. It seems they were quite wrong. One can view the results of the seat in different ways. Those on the left may emphasise that Labour have reversed their decline in the constituency, polling 1% more than they did in 2010. To those on the right, the results are disastrous for Labour – if UKIP continue their surge they will be clear victors when the seat is contested in seven months’ time. What both sides would agree, however, is that the results are ominous for the Coalition. The Conservatives share of the vote dropped 15%, the Lib Dems losing 18%.
Similarly, all sides will point to the lower turnout in both constituencies, as is common in by-elections. Regardless of this fact, UKIP (bar a disaster on their part, which is always possible) will hold Clacton in the General Election. Heywood and Middleton is less clear cut, however. A turnout of only 36%, a huge drop from 2010, will lead UKIP to feel that they can easily take the seat if they continue their voter drive. Labour may be slightly comforted by the notion that they will be able to rally more disinterested voters in seven months. The Coalition parties have no chance.
All parties have another chance to stake their claim in just short of a month, when another by-election takes place in the seat of Rochester and Stroud. Ex-Tory Mark Reckless, inspired by Douglas Carswell, recently jumped rightwards to join UKIP, resigning his seat in the process. Another popular MP, expect UKIP to have two seats in the House of Commons come the 7th November.
By Phil Mansell