UKIP have their first MP: But they won’t get many more

So Douglas Carswell has done it. The Tory defector to the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP*) held his seat at Clacton in last night’s by-election, becoming that party’s first MP. His majority and share of the vote were both up on what he got as a Tory back at the 2010 General Election. UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage has called it (along with the night’s other by-election in Heywood and Middleton where UKIP cut Labour’s majority in a safe seat to 617) as a “wake up” call for both the Tories and Labour. Some have said Clacton will change British politics. But we had a similar by-election 41 years ago that people thought would change British politics. But as I will explain it did nothing of the sort…
In 1972 Lincoln’s Labour MP Dick Taverne was de-selected by his local party for his views on Europe. He responded by resigning his seat in order to fight a by-election(which was held on March 1st 1973). He stood under a new party label (like Carswell) – in his case “Democratic Labour”. He held his seat increasing his majority and his share of the vote (like Carswell). And the result was going to change British politics (like Carswell).
But it did not. Taverne held his seat in the February 1974 General Election but only by 1300 votes (his by-election majority was over 13,000). He tried to form a new party but his candidates only polled an average of 1.5% At the next General Election in October 1974** he lost his seat back to Labour by 984 votes to “a young party apparatchik called Margaret Jackson” (who became Margaret Beckett and is still an MP today). Taverne became a footnote in history. Could this happen to Carswell?
One key question will be: How many seats will UKIP win in the next UK General election (to be held on May 7th next year). History suggests not many. Polls suggest UKIP will poll 14% next year (up from 3% in 2010). There have been three cases in UK electoral history where a non Labour and Tory party saw it’s vote go up by 10% or more. The Liberals and SNP both did this in February 1974 and the SDP Liberal Alliance did this in 1983. But they only gained 8, 6 and 12 extra seats respectively at those elections. Not a good omen for UKIP.
Even more worrying for UKIP is how they got these gains. In February 1974 the Liberal’s eight gains comprised of three seats they won at by-elections between 1972 and 1973, four that they had held (and lost) in either 1966 and 1970 and only one (Isle of Wight) where they came from nowhere to win and in that seat they exploited a scandal involving the local Tory MP. At the same election the SNP’s six gains were four seats they had gained second place in 1970, one where they had cut the Labour majority to 1,141 votes at a by-election the year before and only one (Stirlingshire East and Clackmannan) where they came from nowhere and in that seat their candidate George Reid was a political correspondent for Scottish Television (STV) and was thus well-known in Scotland and had a personal vote.
In 1983 the SDP Liberal Alliance’s 12 gains consisted of two seats they had won at by-elections in 1982 and 1983, four where their candidate had defected from Labour to the SDP and like Carswell held the seat under their new party label and four that had been Liberal seats before. The only two seats they won from nowhere were Yeovil and Leeds West where they had popular candidates who had fought the seta before and built up the vote.
This suggest that to gain seats a small party has to either (a) be in second place (b) win a by-election or cut the big party’s majority at a by-election or (c) a seat the party has held in the recent past. The only exceptions seem to be when the small party has a well-known candidate or exploits a local scandal.
UKIP did not have a single second place at the 2010 General Election. It has won one seat (Clacton) at a by-election and might win another (Rochester and Strood) where another Tory defector to UKIP, Mark Reckless is trying to emulate Carwsell. To this might be added Eastleigh and Heywood and Middleton which UKIP has turned into marginal seats at by-elections and party leader Farage who could win Thanet South on his personal vote. That is five seats at the most. However the SNP in Dundee East is the only example where a small party that made a seat marginal in a by-election won it at the next General Election so it is highly unlikely Heywood and Middleton or Eastleigh will go UKIP next year. So that would mean UKIP will win three seats at the most in 2015 – and might not win any at all
Now there are two caveats. Other Tory MPs could defect to UKIP and emulate Carswell. And UKIP could exploit local scandals we don’t know about and win that way. One could be Rotherham where there has been a child abuse scandal recently. But it is more likely that UKIP – like the other three examples mentioned above – will pile up second places in safe Tory or Labour seats.
Some people talk about a Tory-UKIP alliance after 2015. But it is highly unlikely UKIP will get enough seats to play a part in any Government even if there is a hung parliament. UKIP’s main influence next year will be how big Their vote is. And also who they get it from. Will it be mainly taken from the Tories or Labour? That will be UKIP’s main influence on who goes to 10 Downing Street next year.
*For anybody reading this who is not from the UK UKIP could be best described as a UK nationalist party who want the UK to leave the European Union (EU) and gain control over its own borders. The party – like the Tea Party in the USA – has taken advantage of public discontent with the established parties and topped the poll at the European Parliament elections last May.
**Yes the UK was in such a mess in 1974 we had two General Elections in that year. The first produced a hung parliament and the second a Labour majority of just 3 seats. One suspects the narrow majority in the second election deterred David Cameron from forming a Tory minority government in 2010 and holding a second election later that year instead opting for the current coalition with the Lib Dems.

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