John O’Sullivan will have more to say here later on UKIP’s very good night. Tory defector Douglas Carswell’s triumph in the special election in Clacton was both expected and remarkable (it would have been close to unimaginable a year ago), but the fact that UKIP also came within a few hundred seats of taking a supposedly safe Labour seat (Heywood and Middleton) is not only a huge embarrassment to the Labour Party, but another blow to the Tories. How so? Well, one of the most powerful arguments against UKIP on the right has been that voting UKIP will let Labour in at the next election (due in May). There’s lot to that, but UKIP’s increasing success in attracting support from those who used to vote Labour (or who haven’t voted for years) gives Farage a useful tool for pushing back against it.
That said, the way that Britain’s electoral arithmetic works, the biggest danger that UKIP will pose in May continues to be to the Conservatives. ‘Red Ed’ Milliband still looks to be the most likely next occupant of Number 10.
Over at the Daily Telegraph, Tim Stanley wades in:
The significance of the results is that it suggests that its European elections vote – though nationally small when non-voting is factored in – is holding up in parliamentary elections. Beneath the radar, we are starting to witness a mini-realignment among the disaffected. Rather than swinging from one centrist party to another, as used to happen, they are coalescing around a populist revolt that is hard politically to define.
Consider who Ukip just elected to Parliament: a libertarian who urged his party to embrace immigrants in his intellectual acceptance speech. How will Carswell’s politics sit with a party that has, in recent years, evolved from a simple anti-EU Thatcherite philosophy to something that urges control of migration and protection of the NHS from private finance? For the short-term, there probably won’t be a problem. Ukip will be focused on winning seats in 2015 rather than on internal debates about policy. But in the longer term, there may be some disagreement for the other parties to exploit. It was notable on Thursday night’s Question Time that Eric Pickles went hard after Patrick O’Flynn on u-turns over taxation and health policy. For Ukip’s enemies, those stumbles are hopeful signs of internal disharmony.
But one thing can keep the Ukip coalition bound together: the culture war. It’s hard to put one’s finger on, but there’s a growing divide in this country between the London metropole and everywhere else – a divide reflected in the Scottish nationalist rebellion as well as the purple tide. It’s not really a matter of substantive policy but of style and tone. Ukip represents those who look at the three main parties – parties of wealth, social liberalism, multiculturalism, suits and ties and faint disdain for anything old and traditional – and sees a species apart. By contrast, Ukip’s various faux-pas and the slight barminess of its candidates are indicators of originality and honesty. These aren’t people who one suspects are silently judging the interior of the houses of the voters they canvass on the doorstep.