David Herdson on Thursday’s dramatic elections
Revolutions are best viewed through the wide-angled lens of history, not the microscope of journalism. Even in the most turbulent times, occurrences that would have seemed literally incredible just a few years earlier are taken almost for granted after the conditioning of intervening incremental events.
So it is with UKIP’s successes at this week’s by-elections. Douglas Carswell’s victory was expected by all sides and duly delivered. His colleague in Heywood and Middleton came very close to an even more spectacular result, yet it is likely to be forgotten much more quickly as you don’t get anything for second places under first-past-the-post (except perhaps a launch pad for next time).
If anything, the scale of UKIP’s success yesterday has not yet been fully appreciated due to the numbers being overshadowed by the novelty. UKIP’s first Westminster victory was always going to be a story whether the majority had been twelve hundred votes or twelve thousand; indeed, it was always going to be the story. But the sheer scale cannot be ignored: Douglas Carswell won more votes than any other candidate in any Westminster by-election since Mark Oaten re-secured Winchester for the Lib Dems in 1997.
Clacton was one thing; Heywood & Middleton another again. For UKIP to win more than a third of the vote and very nearly take the seat from near enough a standing start, against an opposition incumbent and when the by-election wasn’t caused by some scandal was an extraordinary achievement. This was no Bradford West, where there were unusual local circumstances and where the candidates had a very significant impact on the voting; this was about party popularity and unpopularity.
Despite all that, the political and media establishment remain slow to accept the scale of the change that is taking place. David Cameron’s response was to repeat the line that a vote for UKIP will let in Labour. Ed Miliband almost endorsed that view, with his assertion that the Conservatives cannot now win. But the key point is that both see the game through the two-plus party filter.
Defining that ‘plus’ is one of the key variables as the General Election draws ever closer. Ofcom maintains a list of “major parties”, which is currently the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems alone for England, and those three plus the relevant nationalists for Scotland and Wales. Will they now change it in the light of these results? It is increasingly difficult to justify both including the Lib Dems and excluding UKIP based on everything that has happened since 2010, and particularly since 2012.
The simple fact is that across much of the UK, the Lib Dems are at best of minor significance. They have lost their deposit in eight of the thirteen Westminster by-elections since the start of 2012, against just two for UKIP. They polled fewer votes (though won more seats) than Farage’s party in the local elections both this year and last, and finished fifth behind the Greens in the European elections. Their trump cards remain their sizable number of MPs and the fact that they proved themselves capable of defending one when it became vacant. Still, it’s a brave assertion to claim that outscores everything else, particularly as UKIP have now won one too. On the other hand, it seems early to give UKIP major party status with just one MP.
A logical move would be for Ofcom to review their categorisation for parties and define an intermediate level:
- Major parties: those who could realistically lead the next government, provide the next leader of the opposition, or have support equivalent to those parties which will. A rule-of-thumb qualification might be a minimum of 20% support.
- Secondary parties: those with wide-scale national support or which are likely to return a meaningful number of MPs. Say, at least 10% of votes or 20+ MPs.
- Minor parties: other parties with an electoral presence – perhaps 100+ candidates, or 2% support, or 2+ MPs.
Why does this matter? Because the air war is still how huge numbers of votes are determined and having a seat at the table – or a representative at a debate lectern – could prove crucial. In 2010, the Lib Dems’ polling shot up by about 10% overnight after the first debate. True, that didn’t fully carry through to election day but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t real at the time. With so much discontent in the system as at the moment, an outsider like Farage would stand a chance of doing the same – if they happen at all, something that now has to be less likely for precisely that reason.
The consequences of this week’s votes will not of themselves be huge but the consequences of the change taking place of which the results – and indeed, defections – were a factor, will. However, because that change is relatively slow and incremental, it’s easy to dismiss each additional step as understandable given its context (or contradictorily, as a flash in the pan). Those that do so without thinking about the bigger picture are liable to wake up one day and ask, bewilderedly, ‘how did that happen?’.