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After the by-election heroics, five questions to ask about Ukip

After the by-election heroics, five questions to ask about Ukip

🕔10.Oct 2014

The 2015 General Election was already difficult to call, but Ukip’s by-election heroics in Essex and Lancashire mean that it is now impossible to predict with any certainty the result of next year’s contest, writes Paul Dale reflecting on the overnight results. 

If Nigel Farage’s party can maintain, and even increase, its momentum over the next few months it is likely that we will end up with a hung parliament where a handful of Lib Dem, Ukip and Ulster Unionist MPs become the kingmakers.

And the best of British to whoever has to do a deal with that lot in order to become Prime Minister.

Last night’s results reinforced one thing that we already knew – working class Tory seats like Clacton are at risk to a Ukip surge. We now also know that Ukip is quite capable of winning in Labour seats, having come within 617 votes of seizing Heywood and Middleton.

Douglas Carswell’s victory in Clacton was not a surprise. The fact that Ukip came so close to victory in Labour’s Lancashire heartlands was an unforeseen shock and may have far-reaching implications across the north of England for the General Election.

There are, it seems to me, five key questions to pose about Ukip:

  • Does the party have staying power? It has proved all but impossible to break the mould of traditional party politics in this country (just ask the Liberals) and the odds must be on Ukip eventually going the way of the SDP, whose flame burned brightly for a short period before dying out.
  • For how long can Nigel Farage succeed in portraying Ukip as a ‘non-political’ force? It’s clear that Ukip’s tactics of presenting itself as a breath of fresh air untainted by the discredited London-based political class has brilliantly caught the public mood, but we should expect a drift back to status quo politics as the General Election nears and Ukip’s right wing policies are more closely examined.
  • Does Ukip actually exist beyond the colourful Mr Farage? To many onlookers it appears that Ukip is a one man band. Can anyone name any of the party’s other key figures? Mr Farage has, so far, been able to play his unconventional ‘man down the pub’ image to his great advantage, but expect the Ukip leader to be subjected to rather more intense media scrutiny in the run-up to next May.
  • To what extent will a vote for Ukip at the General Election risk gifting the seat to another party? This is David Cameron’s ‘go to bed with Nigel Farage and wake up with Ed Miliband’ argument. As Chamberlain Files has reported, there are about 60 seats across the country where Ukip can attract support from disenchanted Conservative voters but will not take the seat, enabling Labour or the Lib Dems to win by default. Equally, there are seats where the reverse is true: fed-up Labour supporters will cast a protest vote Ukip’s way, enabling the Conservatives to win the seat.
  • Can Ukip reach out to Britain’s disengaged electorate? This in many ways is the bombshell question. Just over a third of adults registered to vote at the 2010 General Election did not bother to do so. This apathy, it is claimed, indicates a deep disenchantment with the political class. If Mr Farage could persuade, say, a quarter of the non-voters to vote for him next May, Ukip could move from a bit-part player to a significant presence in the House of Commons.

The two main lessons to be drawn from the by-elections are this: Labour has been issued with a late wake-up call and had better start taking the Ukip threat seriously; if Ukip’s average share of the vote at the 2015 General Election gets above 20 per cent, all bets are off in the race to Downing Street.

It is the unpredictability of exactly where Ukip will take its votes from that makes it so difficult to make any accurate predictions. Let’s take two Birmingham constituencies – Northfield and Erdington. Both are Labour-held, although with not such comfortable majorities as might be expected.

Northfield is the number one Conservative target seat in Birmingham and Tory candidate Rachael Mclean requires a swing of about 3.5 per cent to defeat Richard Burden.

The first thing to point out is that turnout in Northfield was a meagre 58.6 per cent in 2010. If Mr Farage can galvanise the ‘disenchanted army’ and persuade the disengaged and disillusioned to vote for the first time, anything can happen. The second point is that the Heywood and Middleton by-election result shows the consequences of Labour supporters switching to Ukip.

In Birmingham Erdington, Labour’s Jack Dromey won in 2010 with a majority of 3,277 votes over Tory candidate Robert Alden. The turnout was particularly low at 53.5 per cent.

The Conservatives have been making ground in Erdington at council elections over the past five years at Labour’s expense. But in 2010 what might be termed the hard-right vote, adding together support for Ukip, the National Front and BNP, amounted to eight per cent of votes cast. My view is that it is now as difficult to predict the 2015 result in Erdington as it is in Northfield.

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