The Newark by-election was the final act in this year’s election season – or, rather, a twist in the tale. But what kind of twist?
For some commentators, it was a confirmation of the ‘peak UKIP’ theory – which posits that, despite the party coming first in a national election, we’ll soon see the back of Nigel Farage and his ‘People’s Army’.
In a piece for Labour Uncut, Atul Hatwal lays out the evidence:
“…from a poll high of 31% before the racism furore, to 27.5% in the European election itself. And from a starting point of 23% equivalent national vote share in last year’s local elections, they fell to 17% in this year’s contests.”
Polls always vary around the actual outcome, so the campaign ‘poll high’ is an inappropriate yardstick of success. Furthermore, if one combines the UKIP vote with those cast for the party’s breakaway factions – then the poll high wasn’t missed by much anyway. In regard to the comparison of local election results, there is, of course, no comparing such a different set of contests.
As for Newark, Hatwal concentrates on the contest for first place:
“Forget earthquake. Losing by almost 20% to an unpopular incumbent government doesn’t count as a tremor or even an HGV rumbling down the road.”
But what if the earthquake was in the contest for second place? It’s remarkable that in a seat that Labour won in 1997 and which is only number 248 on the list of ‘UKIP-friendly’ constituencies, UKIP firmly established itself as the main challenger to the Conservatives.
This now appears to be the case across large swathes of southern and middle England – including those seats where Labour made major advances in 1997. Whether or not UKIP picks up more than a couple of seats in 2015, it is set to take scores of second places.
In this respect, Hatwal says something very important about what happened in Newark:
“At the last general election, the Lib Dem candidate… got 10,246 votes. In [last week’s] by-election, the Lib Dems received 1,004 votes…
“…it’s likely thousands of Lib Dems switched, and from the results it’s clear they didn’t go to Labour. Some will have drifted into the Ukip column but given the strength of the Robert Jenrick’s victory, it seems most ended up backing the Tories.”
In other words, we be witnessing the birth of an intriguing new phenomenon – tactical voting by left-ish voters for the Conservative Party. Being a Labour supporter, Hatwal is rather concerned by this:
“For Labour, it’s an enormous problem if Lib Dem supporters feel comfortable lending their votes to the Tories.”
However, it’s also a problem for rightwingers who want the Conservatives to reach out to UKIP – and even enter into some kind of pact.
One of the established arguments against leaning too far to the right is that it would convince ex-Lib Dem voters to stick with Labour, thereby giving Ed Miliband the edge in Con-Lab marginals. However, there’s now an even stronger argument – which that in many seats the remaining Lib Dem vote could be persuaded to collapse towards the Conservatives. Furthermore, it is surely easier to squeeze a party in decline (the Lib Dems) than one on the rise (UKIP).
The smartest strategy would be to reach out to UKIP and Lib Dem voters at the same time. This is by no means impossible.
The promise of a referendum on Europe could be presented as an exercise in true democracy (because that’s what it is). A new deal on immigration could be used to contrast the credibility and competence of a minister like Theresa May to Nigel Farage’s clumsy rhetoric. And, most importantly, a Robert Halfon inspired message on everyday economic concerns would appeal to purple and yellow voters alike – most of whom are ordinary working people and not, in fact, the comfortably-off habitués of golf clubs on the one hand or organic farmers markets on the other.