Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Saturday, 2 March 2013

After Eastleigh UKIP are a serious threat

It's typical of the mainstream press as they have done since Mike Thornton's victory in Eastleigh on Thursday to focus on the fact that UKIP came second and the Conservatives came third. You'd hardly know that the Lib Dem candidate had won judging from the front page coverage since then.

It goes without saying that I am very pleased Mike won. He fought a good campaign and I was one of the thousands of activists who poured into the constituency to help him. It is a deserved victory.

However we should not get over excited. Mike got 32% of the vote which in some elections would not be enough to win. One of the main reasons this was sufficient to claim victory this time is because of the large vote that UKIP got: 28%. With the Conservatives getting 25% this made it a three way marginal.

After Eastleigh the political establishment and activists need to start taking UKIP much more seriously. I have seen some comment about how there are no prizes for second place and highlighting that the fact that they have few councillors and have never had an MP.

I think there is a real risk of complacency here. The party was only founded less than 20 years ago and already it has 11 MEPs. In our first past the post electoral system for Westminster it is almost impossible for an upstart party to break through. That's how it is designed, to make the barrier to entry so high that the status quo is maintained. And yet UKIP came within 4 percentage points of having just one of those breakthroughs.

The consequences of this will reverberate through our body politic for a long time. Most importantly UKIP are now no longer a fringe party. To come so close in a key by-election (perhaps the most important one for a decade or more) will linger in the memory. The next time UKIP are fighting somewhere and the other parties try to squeeze their vote by saying they "cannot win" it will not gain as much traction. They very nearly did win in Eastleigh and people know it.

It is also very interesting to note that one of the key aspects of how they fought this by-election was to focus on local issues. For a long time they have only really been associated with EU withdrawal, reducing immigration and one or two other key national policies. But as Lib Dems we know that it is local that can often win the day. UKIP are learning that lesson focusing on things like plans for an incinerator. It is a sign that they are maturing as a political party. As Lib Dems we cannot complain about this, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. It also means that if they continue with this pattern they are likely to be much more competitive at a council level where they are currently very weak. They could now quite quickly start to build up a more substantial local elected base perhaps starting with the May elections this year.

My final point to note is that they managed to achieve their close run second place with a candidate that nobody had heard of. When Nigel Farage announced his intention not to stand, in the back of my mind I thought that UKIP were not taking the election very seriously. After all Farage had stood in the by-election there in 1994 and he seemed like an obvious choice. But instead they went for Diane James who was from outside the constituency and had no national profile at all. It turned out that she is an excellent campaigner who impressed a number of Lib Dems I have spoken to (not about her policies of course but about her campaigning techniques). This is important because for UKIP to be a credible party they cannot be a one man band. Too often in the past it has seemed like Farage is really their only visible member. Having good candidates like Diane who now does have a national profile is vital if they are going to achieve their long awaited breakthrough.

I have confidence that the Lib Dems can take on UKIP and win the argument where they are challenging us. But we need to stop seeing them as a fringe also-ran party in domestic elections. Eastleigh has put paid to that notion.

UKIP are a serious threat. We need to treat that threat with the respect it deserves.


Anonymous said...

They will be a threat if the economy remains in poor shape, otherwise they will end 2015 as they ended 2010, with no MPs and very few councillors.

It is also very easy to exaggerate their threat and get carried away.

Anonymous said...

Come 2015, when it's a grown up election, in Eastleigh there will be a credible Tory candidate, and as we know the Lib Dem vote will collapse following Coaliton and Student Fees-gate, I can see the Tories taking this seat back. Its going to be a simple Red/Blue election next time out. Nice Mike will be back to parish council meetings.