So, UKIP have achieved their first Westminster MP and this is being dubbed a ‘mini-eathquake’ of UK politics by some. It is undoubtedly important, but some analysis and interpretation is needed of this win.
Firstly, Douglas Carswell was the incumbent candidate – he had been the MP of Clacton since 2010. The by-election had been triggered by his defection to UKIP. In essence therefore, he has simply retained his seat. Not too surprising given his level of personal popularity in Clacton.
Equally, in his radio interview this morning, he talked about the value of the protest vote, even if that is what this victory is attributed too. However, we must be wary of polling data. Before the 2010 election, Nick Clegg became known as ‘Super-Nick’ after an impressive performance after the leadership debates: this translated into great polling numbers but was not borne out on election day. UKIP now have one seat – the power this will lend them in parliament in minimal and we will not truly know the impact until May 2015. Certainly, this does not change the UK party system – a party system is defined by the number of parties with a ‘realistic chance of forming government’ and UKIP is currently not in this league.
It is useful also to note that an in an interview with Douglas Alexander of the Labour Party this morning, he was questioned over whether he wished that Ed Miliband could connect to the voters in a way that Nigel Farage seems to. He, astutely, answered that Ed Miliband was the leader of a ‘prospective party of government’ and therefore faced very different constraints than Nigel Farage. This is very true and means that Farage is much more at liberty to say things the electorate may wish to hear (according to the mainstream media, at least) without ever really being held accountable for the delivery of this.
As a protest vote, it must be noted that turnout in Clacton was only 51%, considerably lower than in the 2010 election. Equally, people casting their vote are aware that at most, as a result of this election, UKIP may have gained one seat. This is a very different consideration from casting your vote in a general election when there are all 650 seats available: in the case of a general election, as with 2010 and the Liberals Democrats, the public have often demonstrated a much more guarded approach to letting 3rd parties into Parliament (this should be coupled in no small way with the use of an electoral system which also encourages a two party system).
Moving away from Clacton, the threat that UKIP poses in a much more imminent sense was evident in the Heywood and Middleton by-election. For years, the split of the centre-left vote between Labour and the Liberal Democrats has allowed the Conservatives ‘in through the back door’ in some constituencies. This is now the threat that UKIP poses for Conservatives – splitting the centre-right vote to allow Labour in. Again, caution must be applied when attributing this analysis to the Heywood and Middleton by-election, as Labour did hold the seat before. However in 2010, the vote count was Labour 18,499, Conservative 12,528 and UKIP 1,215 and yesterday that became Labour 11,633, UKIP 11,016 and Conservatives 3,496. this split of votes between Conservatives and UKIP has essentially allowed Labour to retain this seat. This does imply that those who voted UKIP would all have voted Conservative before which simply isn’t true, but it should be clear why the maths of this election may raise a few eyebrows in the Conservative Party. Nonetheless, as in Clacton, voters are aware of the marginal impact of by-elections on Parliament and are often more willing to be a bit less guarded with their election. Equally, turnout here was only 36% compared with 58% in 2010, therefore the result may be different next May.
In all, while this is an important result, the media outlets are really following the UKIP party line of the importance of this. As political students however, some level of calm analysis must be applied. In this case, while the result is interesting, it does not, yet, signal a monumental shift in UK politics.