The U.K. Independence Party’s victory in the Rochester and Strood special election overnight contains enough lessons to fill an encyclopedia — and let’s be candid, encyclopedias usually make heavy reading. So in the next few days I’ll be sending the Corner a series of shorter analyses concentrating on the most important lessons.
The first lesson must obviously answer the question: How big a victory for UKIP was R&S? And if big, how significant for next May’s general election?
Well, the answer is that it was a very big victory for UKIP. Some commentators have suggested that it was a disappointment for UKIP because its 42 percent share of the vote was lower than in some polls, which had predicted a 48–49 percent share, and that its 7.3 point lead over the Tories was likewise disappointing. Those figures are accurate but the conclusion drawn from them is false.
UKIP went from 0 to 42 percent in a constituency where it had never fielded a candidate before. Rochester and Strood had never been regarded as a likely pick-up for the party. It was No. 271 on the UKIP list of winnable seats. And the Tories, who thought they would win the seat only a month ago, threw everything at it. Tory backbenchers were firmly instructed to make five campaigning visits to R&S to canvas voters. David Cameron himself made as many visits. And the campaign was a well-organized one — every home in the constituency was leafleted several times, including at 6.00 a.m. on Election Day.
I made my criticisms of the character of the Tory campaign clear in yesterday’s Corner piece. Some of its pitches struck me as ill-judged and over the top — for instance, the leaflet from the Tory candidate attacking her own leader, David Cameron, as weak on immigration, presumably in order to demonstrate her independence and toughness on the issue. There was more than a touch of comic-opera Putinism about that tactic, playing to the audience the tune it wants to hear today because you intend to play different tunes to different audiences tomorrow. Whatever my criticisms, however, the slight evidence of polls suggests that voters swung back a few percentage points to the Tories in the final week, for which the campaign must be given some credit.
But that modest recovery did no more than moderate the catastrophic nature of the Tory defeat and the seriousness of the threat that UKIP poses to it. As the opinion-polling company Survation observed in its post-election analysis of the result for both parties:
If an MP defecting to UKIP can win a by-election in Rochester & Strood, then similar defections elsewhere could potentially succeed across a very wide range of English constituencies. There are 164 constituencies where the Conservatives won in 2010 on a lower share of the vote than they did in Rochester & Strood. MPs in any of these places who are considering defection to UKIP must now reckon they have at least a reasonably good chance of retaining their seats. Meanwhile Conservative incumbents in many seats must worry that they risk losing either to Labour or, increasingly, directly to UKIP as a result of the continued UKIP success. The message “vote UKIP, get Labour” has less traction than ever when election results like this show it is genuinely possible to “vote UKIP, get UKIP”.
And the Tories did better in this election than either Labour (holders of the seat two elections ago) which gained a 17 percent share of the total on this occasion — or the coalition partner of the Tories in government, the Liberal Democrats, who fell to 1 percent of the vote!
In other words: The next election is likely to see a massive and largely unpredictable set of results, with no fewer than seven political parties nursing realistic hopes of getting some representation in Parliament.
Why did this happen? That’s my next piece.