As the by-election caused by the defection of Conservative MP Mark Reckless to Ukip approaches, Alastair Stephens sees some unsettled political weather ahead
The hot autumn of political troubles for the big three parties is set to continue later this month with the Rochester by-election caused by the defection of Tory MP Mark Reckless to Ukip.
Having decided to face the electorate like fellow defector Douglas Carswell he looks to do as much damage to his old party with his expected victory.
All this is grist to the mill of Nigel Farafge, he and his party are now being portrayed as the same sort of game changer as Beppe Grillo in Italy, upsetting the political establishment and defining the political agenda.
The rise of his party represents a historic challenge to the Tories. Cameron now may have got slip out of the PM who presided over the break up of the UK, but now fears being the leader who watched the division of the Tory vote between rival parties of the right - something without precedent in British history.
But the woe is not all Cameron’s.
The by-elections on 9 October had dark messages for all three main party leaders.
Cold comfort for all
First, the Tory/Lib Dem meltdown.
In Clacton the Tory vote halved, dropping from 22,000 (50% percent of the vote) in 2010 to 8,000 (25% of the vote). The victor, sitting MP Douglas Carswell, did have the advantage of being the incumbent, but previous turncoats have always found that this has saved them. Nobody likes a traitor, unless it is to your cause.
In Heywood and Middleton the story was similar with the Tory vote dropping 12,500 (27% of the vote) in 2010 to 3,500 or 12% of the vote.
The Lib-Dems’ story was one of even greater woe.
In Clacton their vote plummeted from 5,500 (13%) in 2010 to a mere 483 (just 1.4%) whilst in Heywood and Middleton they went from 7,000 (23%) to 1,500 (5.1%).
This represents a real crisis for the Tories, they have haemorrhaged votes at both ends of the country, and nearly all to Ukip.
Labour’s results two results told different stories.
In Heywood and Middleton their vote held up well both numerically and as a percentage.
In Clacton however the Labour vote collapsed dropping from 11,000 to 4000, or halving in percentage terms, going from 25% to 11% (and that was compared to 2010, Labour’s worst result for a generation).
Tory voters switch to UKIP
These were results to please none of the main parties.
The initial headlines were about he crisis this poses for the Tories. And indeed it does.
If Ukip continues to take votes from the Tories like this in the general election it could cause the Tories to lose their status as this country's sole party of the centre right.
It is difficult to know exactly where Ukip got its vote from but judging from the movements of votes in both places most came from a collapse in Tory support.
Polling this year suggests that whilst 50% of Ukip votes come from the Tories, just 15% percent are former Lib-Dems and only 11% Labour.
In Heywood and Middleton the Labour vote held, Ukip leapt and the Tories and Lib-Dems crashed.
It would seem unlikely that many voters had switched from the Lib-Dems, the most Euro enthusiastic party, to Ukip. Most previous Lib Dem voters probably stayed home or voted Labour (the Greens only won 870 votes). These Lib-Dem to Labour switchers may have made up for Labour loses to UKIP, but clearly the vast bulk of their votes came from former Tory voters.
Labour: steady in the north, melting in the south?
Labour can hardly rest on its laurels however. They came within a very narrow margin of losing Heywood and Middleton to Ukip. Still at present this is unlikely to cause Labour to loose seats in the north directly to Ukip. The swing to Ukip was 36%. It would take similar swings to cause this to happen in a general election - unlikely as most Tories are likely to return to the fold, having used a by-election to kick the Tories. Also general elections have much higher turnouts, 57% voted in 2010 in Heywood and Middleton compared to 36% in the by-election, and high turnouts generally benefit Labour.
Clacton is more worrying. This is a seat in which Labour should be challenging. They came second with 25% of the vote in 2010 but that was the worst Labour result for decades. In the previous elections for the two seats from which the seat was formed, in Harwich Labour held the seat in three general elections from 1997 to 2005, whilst in North Essex they came second.
The collapse in the Labour vote should suggest its electorate either stayed home or switched to Ukip.
The story seems to be similar across the estuary in Rochester.
Reports have it that Labour have given up hope. Polls seem to suggest that that they are running in third place on 25% behind Ukip (40%) and the Tories (31%)
Maybe the leadership think it would look better to pass and lose rather than fight and lose.
But the seat is a Labour-Conservative marginal. Labour won six or ten elections up to 1979 in the seat’s previous incarnation of Rochester and Chatham. From 1983 the Tories held it, until 1997 when it was won by the left-wing Bob Marshal Andrews who held it until 2010 (and who was a thorn in the side of Blair for much of that time).
It is the sort of seat that Labour should win.
The Medway towns are relatively poor and deprived and have been in decline since the 1980s when the docks were closed. The prosperity of the south east has mostly passed them by.
This is something that it has in common with Clacton. The seat includes Jaywick one of the most deprived places in Britain where a man’s life expectancy is only 52.
In fact if you look at the areas of Ukip’s highest support they are particularly concentrated in coastal towns. This is not a surprise given their general decline into poverty and social problems.
Deprived of their only real reasons to exist, mass tourism for the resorts (such as Clacton) as people head out of the country on package holidays, or in the case of ports as most traffic is concentrated through a few mega ports, being distant form other economic centres they have declined into poverty and apathy, overpopulated by pensioners and unemployed. The government has now taken to using them as dumping grounds for the poor and troubled, as was pointed out by the right wing think tank the Centre for Social Justice, ironically started by the Ian Duncan smith, the minister now responsible for said dumping.
Poverty in an idyll
The most obvious area of strength if you look at Ukip’s electoral map is the West Country and in particular Cornwall.
Mostly rural with a beautiful coast and Britain’s warmest climate it is one of the most popular destinations in the country.
It is also one of the most deprived. The peninsula’s countryside and idyllic villages detracting from high unemployment, low wages and little housing for ordinary people (being the most popular place for the rich to own second homes). Apart from working for the state most other work is in tourism and agriculture, both seasonal, low skill and low paid.
It is also an area where the poverty exists cheek by jowl with the wealth of those who have been the winners over the last 30 years. Most coastal property, including whole villages, are now seemingly owned as second or retirement homes, by the rich from London and the south east. Low paid locals have been priced out.
That they might turn to Ukip in general elections is unsurprising. The peninsular is part of the Celtic fringe, dominated by Non-Conformism and Liberalism. Labour has always had only a vestigial presence, only holding a handful of seats and the labour movement has barely existed outside of a few big towns since the end of tin mining.
In the last set of local elections in 2013 Ukip took votes off both the Tories and Lib-Dems jumping to 15% well ahead of Labour on just 8% and the Cornish nationalist Mebyon Kernow on 5%. It is interesting to note that the only left challenge to the status quo that exist does so as a left-nationalist formation - as it has to a greater or lesser degree in Scotland and Wales.
The Tory party are clear how they intend to deal with the challenge from Ukip: move to the right. Whether that will work remains to be seen. It will certainly shift the political discussion in that direction.
Unless of course Labour tries to pull it back the other way. Milliband is more likely to resist the siren voices of immigrant bashing than most previous leaders, being to their left, but the party establishment moving relentlessly rightwards seems to have other ideas.
Whether the Tories can win back the Kippers remains to be seen. They may win back some, if not most, but the long-term disintegration of its voting base seems to be as irreversible as Labour’s similar attrition. Whether they can win back enough voters to prevent Ukip seriously affecting the outcome next year seems unlikely.
The present unsettled political weather seems set to continue for a good while yet.
Alastair Stephens has been a socialist his whole adult life and has been active in Unison and the TGWU. He studied Russian at Portsmouth, Middle East Politics at SOAS and writes regularly for the Counterfire website.