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David Herdson on Saturday: We might have passed peak UKIP?

November 22nd, 2014

Is the message from Rochester that 2015 will be ‘close but no cigar’ for Team Farage?

Politics can be a contradictory old business. In many ways, UKIP has been the Party of the Year for the second year running. The SNP might dispute that but the reality is that the SNP lost their big vote in September while UKIP won theirs in May, becoming only the third party since WWI to win a national election. To add to that, they gained over 160 councillors at the local elections, have polled in a comfortable third place all year (apart from with ICM – a notable exception), and have, of course, made the Westminster breakthrough. Indeed, in winning Rochester and Strood, they become only the fourth party since WWII to gain two Commons seats in the same parliament, never mind the same year.

And yet those achievements can be misleading. In reality, 2014 was a year of consolidation, not one of advance. Last year marked their promotion to politics’ second division; this one has seen them maintain that status and the victories in Clacton and then again this week doesn’t change that. The gains in the Euros, locals and – to an extent – by-elections are a feature of those cycles operating over four or five years. Their polling, in the low- to mid-teens, is only marginally up on twelve months ago and is of a level that would not return a significant number of seats at a general election given their vote distribution.

It is a measure of how high expectations are about UKIP’s performance that the result of a win in a seat they didn’t even contest last time is being described as disappointing, particularly given the effort put in by the Conservatives. On the other hand, the narrative in politics is often about momentum, and UKIP winning by a smaller margin than any of the polls found has checked theirs a little.

In so doing, it also gives a bit of a pointer towards next year. We know that the Ashcroft poll found that voters in the constituency were likely to swing back to the Conservatives come the general election (all else being equal), and that UKIP undershot the lead Ashcroft reported for the by-election. Those two facts combined make it less likely that there’ll be any more defectors (or at least, any more who plan on standing again), and less likely that UKIP will make as many gains as they would have come May had they met expectations. Indeed, the two are not unrelated.

Part of this is because UKIP is riding two horses in opposite directions. On the one hand, those politicians most likely to defect are still Conservatives. On the other, UKIP is increasingly chasing the Labour voter, perceiving – probably rightly – that there are now more soft votes in the red column than the blue one. However, the net result of that contradiction is the sort of awkward and unconvincing speech Mark Reckless gave after his win where he tried to proclaim himself the voice of White Van Man. To nail that strategy, what UKIP really needs is a Labour MP to defect. I’m not holding my breath.

David Herdson

p.s. The Lib Dems dodged a bullet on Thursday. It might have been their worst-ever share of the vote, but it could have been worse still. One factor in the demise of the Owenite continuity SDP was when it finished behind the Monster Raving Loony Party in the May 1990 Bootle by-election; something which did much to destroy claims to be taken credibly as a serious party. At that election, the Loonies won 418 votes; in Rochester, the Lib Dems won 349.