Friday, 1 March 2013

Only UKIP have reason to celebrate in Eastleigh

The last thing I wrote, for the online version of my local paper in Bristol, began something like this: “writers who make grand predictions risk looking like here goes.” Such is the nature of political punditry, I was at it again, making mine on Wednesday, the night before polls opened in Eastleigh.

Lord Ashcroft’s poll on Monday, predicting a five-point win for the Lib Dems, with UKIP third on 21% (still 7 points behind the Tories), was enough to convince me that by the time people finished voting, UKIP would surge into second place (see here for my tweet predicting the result). And that they did. Increasing their share of the vote by an astonishing 24%. In 2010, UKIP recorded a mere 3.6%. Last night, this ballooned to almost 28%.

That UKIP are doing well shouldn’t surprise political anoraks (guilty) who’ve been studying the polls over the last year. They’ve regularly been beating the Liberals into third place, with support often into double-digits. Latest polls have them anywhere between 7 and 12%.

To capture 27.8% of the vote last night is a colossal achievement. Just don’t expect UKIP to be getting anywhere near this number come the next general election. By-elections can often produce freak results, with sitting governments punished. But, usually, it’s the opposition who benefits. Not that Labour were expected to challenge the top spot. I’ll come to their result later.

Why did UKIP do so well? And what does this mean for the Tories and the other parties?

Firstly, some people continue to point out that UKIP are a party of protest. Yes and no. We said the same about the Lib Dems not so long ago. Now, they’re in government. The odd crazy poll showing strong support might back this up. Not when UKIP are consistently doing well. Yes, because only the most deluded would expect UKIP to pick up 20 odd percent of the vote in 2015. They won’t. But, that doesn’t mean they won’t do well in carefully targeted seats, which must now be their strategy. A lack of resources means they’ll have to be picky, and last night’s performance should attract new investors.

UKIP’s incredible showing was a strike directly at David Cameron’s Conservatives. Whereas Cameron may have thought he’d won back disaffected, hardened Euro-sceptics, with the promise of an In/Out EU referendum, this wasn’t enough. Why? Two reasons. UKIP want one now. Not in the next parliament, where the chance of Cameron being PM again shrinks by the day. Cameron has offered a referendum, but wants Britain to remain in the EU. In other words, all three main parties will be campaigning to keep Britain in the EU. UKIP’s line couldn’t be clearer: we will take Britain out of the EU.

But, ironically, it’s not their stance on Europe that’s responsible for all these votes. In fact, polling consistently shows that for UKIP supporters, the EU doesn’t even make the top three in terms of its importance as an issue to them. The economy, immigration, crime and welfare come before Europe. Experts have found that:

“Their [UKIP] vote is driven more by concerns over immigration, disillusionment with the government and general unhappiness with modernity.”

In a bumper poll, carried out last December, Lord Ashcroft (yes, him again. His impact on British politics is only going to increase) and his team spoke to 20,000 UKIP, and potential UKIP, supporters. He found that policies were secondary to outlook. Those who are attracted to UKIP are:

More preoccupied than most with immigration, and will occasionally complain about Britain’s contribution to the EU or the international aid budget. But these are often part of a greater dissatisfaction with the way they see things going in Britain: schools, they say, can’t hold nativity plays or harvest festivals anymore; you can’t fly a flag of St George anymore; you can’t call Christmas Christmas won’t get social housing unless you’re an immigrant; you can’t speak up about these things because you’ll be called a racist; you can’t even smack your children”

“The mainstream political parties are so in thrall to the prevailing culture of political correctness that they have ceased to represent the silent majority.”

Sounds just like another party of the (very) right, whose support has plummeted in recent years.
In this respect, there’s not much the Conservatives could have done to stave this off. Their candidate held many views that wouldn’t look out of place in a UKIP manifesto. Even with a right wing choice, the Tories only managed to capture 25% of the vote. In one of their main target seats. One might argue that Maria Hutchings did badly because she was too right wing. But, it didn’t do UKIP any harm. It seems, for now at least, a large swathe of ex-Tories have settled on UKIP. It also assumes UKIP voters see themselves as naturally right wing. No doubt, many Labour voters also opted for UKIP in Eastleigh. The concerns expressed above can also be found amongst disillusioned Labour voters.

What should concern the Tories most is their share of the vote. A 14 point drop from 39% in 2010. YouGov’s latest puts the Tories, nationally, on just 29%. A Conservative majority in two year’s time looks further away than ever. A word about their candidate. Missing in action would be the best way to describe Maria Hutchings. The woman who refused to speak. To anyone!

What about Labour? If I was Ed Miliband this morning, I’d be pretty worried. This was way, way off, a target seat for Labour. That much we know. Scraping the barrel, a Labour spin doctor could point to its increase of its share of the vote. By 0.2%. Not exactly One Nation form. Whilst Labour never expected to win, it still hoped to be competitive. Instead, it couldn’t win over disaffected Tory voters, who flocked to UKIP. Much has been made of those angry and betrayed Lib Dems switching allegiance to Labour. Not if last night’s result is anything to go by. Like the Conservatives, the Lib Dems vote fell 14 points. Instead, not voting was preferable than plumping for Labour. It is these ex-Lib Dems that Labour desperately needs if it has any hope of securing a majority.

I liked John O’Farrell, Labour’s comic, writer, turned candidate. Refreshingly honest, not a party drone with over-rehearsed soundbites. But, Labour should have gone local. Issues centered around Eastleigh. To say, “I’m surprised how much of the literature from the Conservatives and Liberals has been about local authority issues…I’m not standing for the council. I’m standing for Westminster,” as O’ Farrell did last week, betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the campaign that was being fought. As well as his admission that he wouldn’t move to the constituency, should he have won. Not clever politics.

So, why wasn’t last night a reason for celebration for the Liberals? Firstly, they now have a very vulnerable 1,771 majority. If you thought it was precarious, at under 4,000 before, then you were mistaken. I would imagine the Tories will target this seat with even more vigor in 2015. Complete with a far better candidate.

Secondly, to see your vote slip from 46% to 32% suggests much of your core support has abandoned you. It is worth noting that in recent elections, majorities have been slim in this constituency. You have to go back to the last by-election here, in 1994, to see a winning candidate leave with a handsome majority.

For Nick Clegg, I’d say the result doesn’t really alter his standing. He is still a liability for many of the party’s voters. Holding on to Eastleigh is more a victory for the Lib Dems’ formidable army of local activists than it is for the party leadership. They may feel relieved and satisfied this morning, but what this demonstrates, is the monumental task they’ll have in holding on to all their existing MPs, come the next election.

A final thought on UKIP. Had Nigel Farage chosen to stand, they could have gone all the way. Odds on, he’ll be his party’s candidate here in two year’s time.

This comment piece was first published on Speaker's Chair on Friday 1st March 2013

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