Saturday, 11 October 2014

Clacton, Rochester and the Challenge of First Past The Post

I had always been certain the United Kingdom Independence Party would win the by-election in Clacton. Every factor that could point in the party’s favour did so:

1. First of all Clacton was, as it happened, UKIP’s most winnable seat in the United Kingdom to begin with, at least according to the people who have ways and means of calculating these things.

2. It was a by-election, which meant voters did not need to have any fears (or hopes) about who would be running the country the next morning. The “Vote UKIP – Get Labour” mantra much beloved of the Prime Minister David Cameron did not apply here.

3. Being a by-election all media attention was focused on Clacton rather than upon a country-wide contest as would have been the case in May next year.

4. The contest was all about UKIP. It was about a sitting Member of Parliament, Douglas Carswell, who had resigned his membership of the Conservative Party and joined the Eurosceptic group amid a blaze of publicity. Try as the establishment parties might to focus the discussion on the NHS or the economy, this by-election was never going to be about anything other than the United Kingdom Independence Party and its political programme.

5. Carswell was always going to gain kudos from the fact that he had resigned his seat and reverted to the electorate, to give voters a chance to approve or disapprove his decision to change party mid-term. Let us be in no doubt that as a decision it was tactical rather than courageous. Carswell was smart enough to understand that sitting as an anonymous backbencher for the remainder of his elected term was a sure-fired way of courting defeat at next year’s general election, where conditions would favour the big parties. By raising his profile and winning back his seat by a huge majority he has given himself a good fighting chance of retaining Clacton next May. Nevertheless he and his party were able to make much of the fact that he had been willing to incur a certain amount of risk in going back to the electorate to allow them to have the final say on his decision.

For these reasons a UKIP victory was always on the cards. But the magnitude of the win (with some 60% of the votes cast), considered alongside the fact that an unfancied UKIP candidate in the former Labour stronghold of Heywood & Middleton in the North came within a whisker of also being elected on the same night, has persuaded me to reassess my previously held view that the forthcoming contest in Rochester would prove a by-election too far for UKIP. I now believe, as indeed do the bookies, that Mark Reckless will be back in the House to keep his new colleague company when the votes are counted in Kent.

So will Carswell’s victory be the death knell of two-party system as we know it? I suspect not.

Whilst I would expect UKIP to hold Clacton next year and also possibly to gain South Thanet, where Farage himself will be standing, in the total seats stakes the party will still be languishing some considerable way behind the unfashionable Liberal Democrats, in spite of the fact that it is likely to win more votes. The reason for this is because the Lib Dems cottoned on to the fact many years before UKIP did the same, that disproportionate power can be gained by concentrating all available campaigning resources in a small handful of areas.

UKIP, of course, are talking up their chances of scoring well in May 2015 because, frankly, they have to. The ball is rolling. If they are going to have any chance at all they must at the very least create an air of confidence. The task before them though – the discontinuation of the endless dreary ritual engaged in by millions of voters of voting against the party they dislike the most every bit as much as for their party of preference – is a massive one. Cameron knows what he is doing when he tries to frighten Tory-leaning UKIP voters with the prospect of a Labour government. Expect a significant chunk of the UKIP-friendly vote to revert to the big parties when the real election comes around.

Unsupportive though I am of UKIP’s main policy planks I nonetheless rejoice at the implications for the old system of the results in Clacton and Heywood & Middleton, because there are few evils in modern politics to match the ongoing fraud perpetuated against the voters by the Con-Lab duopoly. But I do fear we have a long way to go yet before we will see, as one day we certainly will, the replacement of the rotten old system by something more open and inclusive.

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