UKIP: symptom of decline

Submitted by AWL on 25 November, 2014 - 6:29

On 20 November UKIP won its second elected MP in the Rochester and Strood by-election.

In many ways this is a worse result for the Conservatives than the Clacton by-election that UKIP won on 9 October. There, the profile of the population was on UKIP’s side, white, ageing, and poorly educated. Rochester is another matter.

In their book about UKIP, Revolt on the Right, Matthew Goodwin and Robert Ford suggested that Clacton had a demography where UKIP would prosper, but the population of Rochester is younger and more educated. It has more London-facing commuters who may have a more cosmopolitan outlook.

For the Conservatives to lose Rochester and Strood on a swing against them of 14 percentage points is bad news.

By polling day the Tories had lowered their expectations so much they could claim that their 35 per cent of the vote, compared to UKIP’s 42 per cent, was not that bad. But Conservatives had done everything they could to win the seat.

Some media commentators attempted to talk the result down on the grounds of the turnout being only 51%, but that‘s a very high turnout for a by-election.

The result is also bad news for the left. Rochester and Strood incorporates much of the old Medway constituency that Labour won in 1997 and held (marginally) in 2005. If Rochester and Strood had existed in 2005, it would have been a Conservative gain from Labour with a small majority.

In the by-election Labour won back none of the votes lost since 1997, and received no benefit from the near-complete collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote. Rather, the Labour leaders' slightly-less-austerity programme lost much of even Labour's rump of support from 2010. Voters disillusioned with the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are not looking to Labour or moving left, but moving right to UKIP.

Many in the Labour leadership and the press have reacted by calling for New Labour Mark 2 (thus the Alan Johnson plot-that-never-was).

But a Blairite retread is no longer an option for the Labour leadership. In 1997 Blair's strategy was to appeal to "aspirational" voters who lacked class consciousness while relying on the core working-class vote who (he believed) had nowhere else to go. That core vote was fragmented by the experience of New Labour, and will not be rallied so easily again.

UKIP is not the cause, but a symptom, of the decline in working-class politics. The answer is to rebuild the confidence of the working class to assert itself in politics.

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