- Are UKIP the new Liberal Democrats? For Douglas Carswell to win Clacton with a majority of over 12,000 and some 60 per cent of the vote, and for UKIP to come within 600 or so votes of victory at Heywood and Middleton, shows that the party can challenge both the Conservatives and Labour in seats that they previously saw as safe – just like the Liberal Democrats in their prime. Is the comparison worth pursuing? The Liberal Democrats already had over 20 seats in the Commons when their party was formed. UKIP had none before the Clacton by-election. By my count, the Liberal Democrats have held three of the 13 by-elections that they have won since their creation uninterruptedly – Kincardine and Deeside, Eastleigh and Brent South. This is the example that Douglas Carswell will be seeking to follow. It took the Liberal Democrats two Parliaments to pass the 50 MP barrier, and five to gain a share in government. With its 400 or so local councillors and mid-teens share of the vote in European elections, UKIP is aiming to get there more quickly. So in at least one sense the right answer to the question is Yes. As the Liberal Democrats once were, UKIP is a growing force – in by-elections as well as European and local ones.
- How many MPs will UKIP have in May? A year or so ago, I thought the most likely answer was: None. Perhaps the best answer this evening is: at least One. With a majority this size and a share of the vote on this scale, Carswell is very likely to make it back to the Commons next May. Although he is not the first UKIP MP (Bob Spink, another Essex MP, beat him to it) he is the Party’s first elected MP. This is thus a dramatic moment both for him and for them: the day that Nigel Farage’s party burst through the electoral glass ceiling. But whichever of the main parties one believes UKIP menaces more, it is only taking MP defections from one – the Conservatives. The latter will seek to halt the UKIP bandwagon in Rochester and Strood. If they don’t succeed, more defections and by-elections may follow. But if they do, UKIP may seek Parliamentary defections without by-elections – and that the party is now seeking these suggests that it isn’t confident of the outcome in Kent. Either way, and with or without defections, UKIP may well win more seats than just Clacton next May. A Lord Ashcroft poll in July found the party ahead in Thurrock and Thanet South, and second in Great Yarmouth.
- Will UKIP take more from Labour than the Conservatives in the blue-red marginals? This is perhaps the key question for next spring – since whether it takes more from either of the two main parties in their “safe” seats matters less. A Lord Ashcroft poll last May in marginal seats found more former Conservative voters than Labour ones among UKIP voters; the July poll found it picking up Labour votes. A recent Fabian Society study suggested that UKIP will indeed damage Labour more than the Conservatives in some key seats. The conventional wisdom to date (and the sum of the betting markets when I last looked) is that reverse is true. If it isn’t, then David Cameron’s chances of making it back to Downing Street should be revised upwards.
- Will UKIP take more from the Conservatives than the Liberal Democrats in the blue-yellow marginals? The Fabian study implied that this is likely to be the case. Recent Lord Ashcroft polling shows that the Liberal Democrats are making more of incumbency in some important marginals than the Conservatives are. If the signs in the blue-red marginals are ambiguous, those in the blue-yellow ones aren’t good.
In summary: big by-election swings are thrilling for those who follow them, and for UKIP to win its first MP is a breakthrough moment for it – in that sense, all credit to Douglas Carswell. His victory can truthfully be called historic: the main parties are losing the confidence of voters. But what will matter next May are the marginals, the marginals, the marginals – and the effect that UKIP will have in them, either by putting one of the three main parties over the line…or by winning outright itself.