If they can’t compete in winnable by-elections, how can they progress?
Hands up. I could not have called the Oldham by-election more wrong. Like many others, I thought at the very least UKIP would at least give Labour a close fight, so the scale of their victory was a huge shock.
Different people with different agendas will read different things into the result. Jeremy Corbyn supporters will say Labour were bolstered by their new, enthusiastic army of activists.
Anti-war campaigners will say it was a response to the previous day’s highly publicised, sometimes vitriolic debate on Syria. Being labelled ‘terrorist sympathisers’ by the Prime Minister is the sort of thing that motivates people to vote.
Other Labour voices will point to the strength of their popular local candidate, Jim McMahon – very much from the non-Corbynite wing of the party and a future star, apparently.
All probably played a part, but I’m not convinced the result told us much about Labour. They remain an unpopular, divided, crisis-ridden party. For me, the big story is UKIP’s shocking performance. Given their previous effectiveness in by-elections, to improve only 3% on their General Election result was catastrophic.
In the past, I’ve called UKIP spot on. I repeatedly tipped them to perform well in by-elections during the last parliament. I tipped them strongly ahead of their European elections victory, observing that they have tapped into a ‘Poujadiste’ strand of British opinion, that has never truly been represented in party politics.
Then at the General Election, I tipped them to bomb. Not because their supporters would desert them in great numbers, but because there is a ceiling to their support that makes it very hard to win parliamentary seats under our first-past-the-post electoral system. They actually did even worse than I predicted in this film for Betfair Predicts.
Since the General Election, I’ve been leaning towards the view that they represent an existential threat to Labour in the vast swathes of Northern England and the Midlands where the Conservatives represent no threat whatsoever.
UKIP have become the main opposition to Labour in these parts, and are in tune with plenty of their once natural supporters on issues like immigration. Moreover, they are an obvious tactical recipient of tactical Tory votes – given that they have no chance of winning in places like Oldham.
Another pivotal issue is the looming EU referendum. It seems UKIP will be the only mainstream party in favour of leaving the EU – a position shared by roughly half the country. Just as the SNP swept the board in Scotland after monopolising the pro-Independence movement, albeit losing, it is possible to imagine an almighty UKIP surge in the coming years.
However after Oldham, all that seems extremely optimistic. Another reading is that they’ve already peaked. Their novelty value has long gone, and the historically moderate British population have dumped them in the ‘racist’, ‘extreme’, ‘far-Right’ box that has yielded no electoral dividend for any party ever in our history.
Plus, our cynical electorate seems to be particularly wary of ‘opportunist’ politicians – a problem that plagues all oppositions. Tory leaders William Hague and Michael Howard suffered from it when Labour were in government. Ditto Ed Miliband for Labour in the last parliament. Voters get very tired of every single problem being blamed on either the EU or immigration.
Time will tell if this is the case, and the referendum will be fascinating. However Nigel Farage is beginning to look past his sell-by date, and he really is the party’s brand. Suzanne Evans or Paul Nuttall may be competent replacements, but I would fear for UKIP without their leader’s huge name recognition.
What do you think? Post your comments below and let’s start a debate. If we want to predict the next few years in UK politics, we need to work out whether UKIP continue to win between 10 and 15% of the vote, expand it, or whether it collapses and those 4M voters return to their traditional parties.