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Farage’s Newark gamble: UKIP won’t score a near-miss

May 3rd, 2014

But the seat provides challenges for all parties

To be damned if they do and damned if they don’t is the lot of politicians.  Whatever decisions they take (or don’t take), one side or another will criticise them.  To that end, Nigel Farage’s choice to opt out of the Newark by-election will be castigated by some as defeatist at a time when his party is surging in the polls.  Had he taken the alternative option, he’d instead be called an egoist and would risk damage to his party and himself if he under-performed expectations.

Even so, running a different candidate brings risks of its own.  One is that if UKIP do manage to win, Farage will have missed an opportunity and questions will arise about whether the MP is better placed to lead the party than he is (the Greens have that MP in / leader out split so it can be done but it’s probably not to their advantage).  Another is that if they fall just short – finishing within 5% of the winner, say – then unless UKIP’s candidate clearly ran an excellent campaign, Farage will be accused of both bottling the nomination and throwing away a probable mould-breaking win in the process.

In reality, talk of a UKIP should be premature.  In 2010, UKIP lost their deposit in Newark.  To go from there to first place within a parliament would be an extraordinary if not quite unprecedented achievement.  George Galloway did record precisely that feat for Respect in Bradford West but there, the candidate choice was absolutely critical rather than merely being a factor in the mix.  Even so, with UKIP polling at up to five times their 2010 election share and double that for the Euros, and given the opportunity for protest voting that by-elections offer, the prospect can’t be ruled out.

So what of the other parties?  Obviously, the Conservatives will want to hold the seat and unlike Corby, stand a much better chance of mounting their first successful defence in government since 1989 (though this is only their second such opportunity in 17 years).  Labour’s national poll share gives no indication of their being able to make the 16% swing needed to gain it and with a split opposition, defeat would be a serious set-back for Cameron less than a year from the general election.

On the other hand, Labour cannot write off a failure to advance as this being hopeless territory: they won Newark as recently as 1997.  If UKIP can take a substantial share from the Tories, that alone would put Labour within striking distance providing that they can hold their own against the Purples.  With a large Lib Dem share to squeeze from 2010 and the nature of Mercer’s resignation, Labour ought to be at least within the picture.  The risk is that if UKIP does too well, Labour will end up going backwards, in position and in vote share.  That would give Miliband his own questions to answer.

For the Lib Dems, Newark looks like another extremely tough by-election.  Starting only 2.3% behind Labour, it’s the sort of seat where the Clegg Effect at the general election was most pronounced – and hence where a lot of their votes were soft even before the effects of entering government were felt.  Had this been a solely Tory government, the Lib Dems might have fancied their chances of a win.  As it is, the only thing the Yellows will be looking to gain is their deposit back.

So at last, we have an interesting by-election this parliament; one with a many unknowns and a lot at stake for many of the participants.  And non-participants.

David Herdson