The result from the most eagerly awaited by-election of this parliament was something of an anti-climax. While parts of the leafy Nottinghamshire seat succumbed to the Ukip fever gripping the nation – the Eurosceptic insurgents vaulted into second place, increasing their vote by well over twenty percentage points – enough middle-class shire Tories remained immune for the Conservatives to comfortably retain the seat.
The youthful Robert Jenrick emerged as the first candidate to successfully defend a seat while his party is in government since an even more youthful William Hague won a by-election in Richmond, Yorkshire, 25 years ago, providing a powerful boost to the morale of a party bruised by heavy election defeats last month.
David Cameron took a big gamble scheduling the Newark by-election, triggered by the resignation of Patrick Mercer in April, so soon after the European Parliament elections where UKIP was widely expected to surge.
A big risk, but a calculated one: Cameron and his advisers most likely reasoned that a quick by-election would deny Ukip the time to organise, particularly if held so soon after a critical set of European and local elections which would stretch the resources of what is still a small and patchily organised insurgent party to the limit.
Tory vote still healthy
Organisation matters in by-elections, something the Lib Dems have proved time and again (most recently in Eastleigh, in the toughest possible circumstances). The Conservatives started with a massive advantage in Newark, where Ukip had no local infrastructure to speak of, and have had to scrambled to build a makeshift organisation in a matter of weeks, while the national Conservative party unleashed the full might of a well-oiled and well-resourced campaign machine.
The Tory chairman Grant Shapps, and the local Conservative organisers, can take great pride in both the solid Conservative share of 45% and the 53% turnout, high for a by-election.
Nor was organisation the Conservatives’ only advantage. The social mix in Newark always heavily favoured the incumbent – the seat features great swathes of beautiful countryside studded with prosperous, solidly Conservative villages. The economic stagnation and political alienation which have fuelled Ukip’s rise since 2010 are not much in evidence in the leafy landscapes of rural Nottinghamshire.
Newark is not uniformly wealthy; there are, for example, many struggling voters in the council estates fringing the town of Newark itself, but their numbers were never sufficient to deliver Ukip victory on their own. The rebels needed to win over a large part of the more comfortable middle classes, something they have not achieved before. At Newark, they once again fell short.
Ukip energy faltering?
From the outset, Ukip was aware that Newark was not an ideal seat. Nigel Farage’s decision not to stand, or even to campaign in the seat during the final days before polling, show the party knew from the outset that Nottinghamshire would not be the site of their first Westminster breakthrough. But a predictable setback is a setback nonetheless, particularly with expectations so high after last month’s historic result.
Ukip has had the wind at its back, with Farage setting the political agenda in Brussels and Westminster, enjoying an unprecedented wave of media coverage and political attention. Yet, once again, the party was unable to convert this into a Westminster victory – its 26% share was up 22 points on 2010, but was 19 points behind the victorious Conservative candidate. Ukip can now add a strong second place against the Tories to previous runners-up spots against the Liberal Democrats at Eastleigh and Labour at Rotherham, South Shields and elsewhere in this Parliament.
Its ability to concentrate its wide, but thinly spread, public support sufficiently to win at constituency level remains unproven. The other parties will no doubt seek to raise doubts among voters about Ukip’s ability to win, framing Ukip ballots as wasted votes. Newark was its last opportunity to dispel such doubts. Its failure in Newark could make life harder in the more favourable seats it will focus attention on next spring.
While activists will claim the party was never really trying in Newark, Labour will nonetheless be disappointed with its performance, as its vote dropped more than 4 points to just 18%. By-elections are an opportunity for the opposition to show strength, and in the 1990s Labour achieved dramatic swings in several, foreshadowing the landslide victory to come in 1997.
In Newark, by contrast, the party went backwards in a seat where it was the local opposition. The limp showing in Newark will reinforce concerns that Labour is failing to connect with voters outside the party’s heartlands of the big cities, Scotland and South Wales. Labour will need victories in the marginal seats of middle England if it is to achieve a majority and the disappointing news from Newark will worry those fighting much closer contests in seats nearby.
Lib Dems looking sicker than ever
As for the Liberal Democrats, an 18-point drop in the vote and sixth place overall will come as little surprise to a party now used to electoral pummelling, particularly in seats where they are out of the running. This latest drubbing will reinforce the siege mentality within the party, who will largely abandon the field in such seats in 2015, focusing on limiting the political damage of coalition in the seats they already hold.
In the end, the comfortable Conservative hold in Newark lacked the drama of earlier by-elections in Corby, Eastleigh and Bradford. Yet the predictable result underlined the unpredictability to come. Ukip’s 20-point surge was not enough to break the Tories’ formidable stronghold here, but in many other more marginal seats such a showing could be decisive next year.
Conservative and Labour candidates alike will be paying close attention to Ukip activity in their seats, particularly those in the seaside towns and villages of the east coast, where Ukip has been strongest. The sharp drop in the Conservative share, and Labour’s limp showing, underline how both main parties go into the election year in a weak position.
The Liberal Democrats once again look like a party fighting for its life, while Nigel Farage’s insurgents go into the election with everything still to prove. Newark may have been a damp squib, but a close look at the results suggests many fireworks to come next May.