Yesterday’s Clacton by-election has sent shock waves through British politics, with the winner becoming UKIP’s first ever MP to sit in Westminster. Douglas Carswell, former Conservative MP before defecting to the anti-EU party, won the seat by over 60% of the vote, snapping up a 12,204 vote majority over his old party. Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats managed to seize a grand total of 483 votes.
Another by-election also took place which got the Westminster MPs shaking in their boots; one much further north in Heywood and Middleton.
There, UKIP managed to squeeze Labour’s vote from a projected 20% down to 2%. The result meant that Labour’s previous 6000 vote majority from 2010 shrank to just 617. This in a constituency that was listed 148th on UKIP’s “friendly” list.
Nevertheless, the reaction to the results has developed into something we witness just under a month ago in the Scottish independence referendum.
During the campaign, the words “Westminster establishment” were used time and again to attack those in Whitehall for being “out of touch” with ordinary Scots. The same exact words were now coming from Lord Pearson of UKIP, who said that UKIP understood the problems facing “ordinary” people in the United Kingdom, and an alternative to the usual parties seen in the Westminster establishment.
Also following the result was a pledge from the Westminster parties to quash the “advance” of UKIP. Again, something we saw in the #indyref. The problem with this sort of language is that it alienates people. By saying they will “beat back” UKIP is to say they will do battle with an electorate they want to win over.
The rhetoric does not make sense. If there is one way to lose voters, it is to make them feel alien. In making UKIP voters out to be an army of hooligans marching on Whitehall, the main parties are putting themselves at serious risk of never reclaiming the votes lost to UKIP.
If we take a step back to look at the Clacton by-election, we can see that it is not just a defeat of the three main parties. Instead, it was down to a problem that we have seen rising over the past few years, that many have speculated would bring about such results: low turnout.
Turnout in the by-election was 51%, down from 64% in 2010. Remember in the previous General Election when the BNP were all over the papers, and the fear was that turnout would be so low as to cause the BNP to gain a number of seats? What in fact happened was the BNP did not pick up a single seat at national level.
However, the difference between the BNP and UKIP is not just in policy, but in leadership. Many accused former-BNP leader Nick Griffin as being in support of the holocaust, extremely racist, and close to Nazism. Farage is completely different: described as honest, open, likeable and down to earth. It was easy in 2010 to marginalise the BNP, but not UKIP now.
Immigration is firmly set high on the agenda. Sky conducted an online poll that found 44% of Britons feel immigration is the number one issue in the country – more than those who felt the economy and NHS were.
It is not just the “rise of UKIP” the parties should be concerned with, rather the turnout. This was an abysmal drop in turnout for Clacton, a seat which had a turnout just 1% lower than that of the UK as a whole in 2010.
UKIP are still seen as an anti-EU, anti-open immigration party. The other parties are seen as a collection of policies, not as the embodiment of an aim. UKIP stand as the party who will control immigration, and stop the EU taking a greater role in UK politics, so people with the same views are going to vote for them.
It is not that people are saying: “I like UKIP’s health care policy”, or “Farage has it right on housing”. No. They are frustrated with the status quo, and dealing with the problem the way they are is not doing Labour, the Tories or the LibDems any favours.