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Eastleigh – the David Herdson view

March 2nd, 2013

Who will the UKIP prostest vote unwind to, and how far

Nick Clegg and Tim Farron have understandably hailed the Lib Dems’ first by-election win in over seven years as “stunning” and “staggering” respectively – after all, their party has not had much to celebrate electorally since 2010 and a win is a win – but Eastleigh was not a great success for any of the major parties.

The Tories had the worst result but to finish within three thousand votes of winning, even in third, wasn’t a disaster, particularly since certain key components of their campaign weren’t firing on all cylinders. Lessons can and should be learned. If immigration was indeed one of the biggest campaign issues, the Conservatives really ought to be able to capitalise on that. Indeed, re-engaging with the key issues for Sun / Mail-type readers is something that CCHQ will no doubt be thinking about as 2015 approaches.

For their partners in coalition, the result obviously brought the boost of a hold, a win, and a new MP in Westminster. That shouldn’t however cloud the downsides. Their 32.1% share was the lowest winning by-election share of the vote in over a century, excluding an anomalous university-seat result in 1946, and as such was as much down to the fortuitous splitting of the remaining vote as of their own strength. Perhaps FPTP has isn’t so bad after all?

Labour are no doubt pleased at the Conservatives’ misfortune in not only failing to win but being pushed into third, while overlooking their being completely overtaken by UKIP in picking up protest votes, despite Labour starting with nearly three times UKIP’s vote in the seat in 2010. Had Labour gained the 24% from the coalition parties instead of UKIP, Labour would have won.

    The big questions arising from these underwhelming results is how much of UKIP’s sustainedly good election performances since 2010 is mid-term protest and how far can they surf that wave?

    Their on-the-ground operation obviously lags the other parties’ across most of the country and while that is – or can be – important in making a breakthrough, its importance can also be over-stated.

Maybe the difference between their local base and knowledge made the difference between a Lib Dem and a UKIP win but it didn’t prevent UKIP from winning over of a quarter of the vote from a standing start. A similar lack of prior ground operations certainly didn’t prevent George Galloway from storming to victory in Bradford West. On a bigger scale, there’ve been many parties of protest of both left and right across Europe who’ve capitalised on the unpopularity of the establishment to win very sizable shares of the vote with the Five Star Movement in Italy being the most recent example. Few have made it to power but that’s often (as seems likely in Italy) due to the establishment closing ranks and forming coalitions between former rivals. Whether that strengthens or weakens their positions against the newcomers depends almost entirely on how well they handle that office; they’re essentially putting all the establishment eggs in one basket.

Are England and Wales experiencing a similar realignment (Scotland, as ever, is different)? Until the Eastleigh result, I’d expected Labour to win a comfortable victory in the EP elections next year, with UKIP probably taking second. Given Labour’s inability to make any advance in Eastleigh, I’d now be surprised if it’s anything other than a comfortable UKIP first place. A fifth place for the Lib Dems may well be the best they can aim for. Whether that translates into a realignment at the general election in 2015 is likely to depend on Britain’s media, which tends to be conservative in both ‘small-c’ meanings. Despite UKIP regularly matching the Lib Dems’ electorally and in polling, there seems to be a massive resistance to breaking the three-party reporting prism through which both the print and electronic media are operating. That gives all three establishment parties a little time to take stock and respond, but only a little.

The longer that UKIP continue to pick up seconds and thirds – never mind wins, should they come – the harder it will be to exclude them both from general coverage and from the leadership debates in particular.

David Herdson