UKIP has a seat in the House of Commons, after Douglas Carswell, the former Conservative MP who defected to UKIP, won back his Clacton seat in an expected, but still convincing by-election victory for his new party.
Carswell won a huge 59.75% of the vote in the by-election, while his nearest rival Giles Watling, who replaced him as the Tory candidate in the seat, won just 24.6%. The Liberal Democrats lost their deposit. Anything other than an overwhelming win in a constituency identified as prime UKIP territory, would have been an anti-climax in this by-election, for both Carswell and UKIP.
The second by-election of the day in the Heywood and Middleton constituency of Greater Manchester ended in a win for Labour candidate Liz McInnes – but only just. UKIP came close to pulling off a second, and even more spectacular, there too. McInnes secured 41% of the vote but UKIP’s candidate John Bickley made significant gains, ultimately taking 39%. Conservative candidate Iain Gartside came third with just 12% and Liberal Democrat, Anthony Smith, fourth with 5%.
McInnes’ predecessor Jim Dobbin had represented Heywood and Middleton for Labour from 1997 until his death earlier this year but this election looked uncertain at times. The result shows Labour was right to be worried about the UKIP threat.
No two by-elections are ever alike and this has rarely been illustrated quite so clearly as in Thursday’s contests. In the first, an MP who resigned from one party won his seat back for another and in the second, the party which looks most likely to form the next government was forced to fight hard to retain a seat which it won quite comfortably in the past. Nonetheless, the rise of UKIP was the story in both.
Can he go the distance?
As many defectors before Carswell have proved, the UKIP MP’s big test will be lasting past the next election.
In March 1973 the former Labour MP Dick Taverne caused a political sensation by winning his old seat of Lincoln as a “Democratic Labour” candidate. As a Labour defector, Taverne won a much greater share of the vote than he had received in the 1970 general election. But his success was short lived. Taverne retained Lincoln in the general election of February 1974 but his former party snatched it back in the October 1974 contest.
To the extent that Carswell has established a high profile in the media as well as within his constituency, the Taverne precedent provides grounds for concern. In the wake of the latter’s victory at Lincoln, the right-wing press hailed him as a heroic democratic champion, prophesying the imminent demise of the Labour Party. A year later Labour was back in office. Taverne’s high and strongly positive profile counted for little in a battle to form the next government.
Fending off the upstarts
Meanwhile, over in Heywood and Middleton, Labour had serious worries in the early part of the campaign. In the 2010 election Dobbin received just 40% of the vote and both the British National Party and UKIP fared respectably, so it had looked like this would be no easy win. And indeed it wasn’t. Nigel Farage has been visiting the constituency regularly during the election campaign and his efforts appear to have paid off.
UKIP’s strong performance compared to the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats might make headlines but should be received with caution. Some loyal supporters of the quarrelsome coalition partners must have been tempted to lend their votes to Labour in order to keep out UKIP.
The success of UKIP in Clacton and its gains in Heywood and Middleton is a big story but we should be careful not to get carried away. By-elections are, after all, events in which the usual mixture of local and national influences on voting behaviour are greatly distorted by the presence of undesirable intruders from the media and the political parties. It would be wrong to use the Clacton result as the basis for predictions about the general election – although it’s hard to resist.