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After Eastleigh: UKIP

03/03/2013

After Eastleigh – TOC

1. The LibDems
2. UKIP
3. The Conservatives
4. Labour

Another ‘best ever’ result for UKIP, with momentum clearly on their side: they kept their deposit in Oldham East and Saddleworth; they took second place in Barnsley Central (though the battle there was for second); and more than a fifth of the vote in Rotherham. This is another chapter in that story.

So why did it happen? Firstly, with the By-Election a battle between two sides of the same coin, there was always room for a third force. Secondly, the speculation that Nigel Farage might be the candidate helped get their name in the papers from the get-go. Thirdly, the Conservatives’ attempt to outflank UKIP from the right backfired spectacularly, giving UKIP additional traction and relevance and highlighting a political gulf between David Cameron and Maria Hutchings. Fourthly, she might not have been Nigel Farage, Diane James proved to be a revelation, putting the UKIP case in a reasonable, articulate manner. Fifthly, UKIP tapped quite successfully into some of the fears of the constituents. The stars aligned for Nigel Farage and co, but I suppose there will be a few in the party wondering what might have been. Had Farage himself been the candidate, would he have won? Perhaps so, but as he himself admits, he’d then be accused of leading a one-man band.

But are UKIP the party of tomorrow? Not necessarily. Yes, they kept their deposit in Oldham, took a second place in Barnsley and built on that in Rotherham and Eastleigh. But there have been far more than four By-Elections and while the general pattern of UKIP results has shown a series of credible performances, the party has not consistently set the heather alight. Besides, we’re all talking about the party’s second place today, but it’s not a first place. Diane James was a good candidate, but for how long will she be remembered? The SNP hold the names Robert McIntyre and Winnie Ewing in high esteem. Gwynfor Evans enjoys a place in Plaid Cymru’s pantheon. But they won their contests. Diane James did not. When UKIP secures its first elected MP, then they’ll have made history.

Their next major test is the County Council elections in England this May. Every year UKIP promise a breakthrough at local elections. Every year, they fail to seriously deliver. This year, they have to. Then will come their showpiece: the 2014 European Elections. They’re aiming for first place, but even if they get it, they shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that it’s a viable springboard into the Westminster Elections a year later. In 2004, they made a breakthrough in the European elections, coming third with 16% of the vote. The following year they took just 2.2%, having lost two million voters in less than a year. In 2009, they came second with 16.5%, but a year later they took just 3.1%, with 1.5 million voters heading elsewhere. They remain the party you vote for to give someone else a kicking.

Then there’s candidate selection: the candidates they got elected to the Greater London Assembly in 2004 ended up seeking re-election under a different banner; their MEPs suggest in all seriousness that it would be a bad idea to hire women of childbearing age; some end up arrested; and even those with a clean record are just as likely at their one-time AM colleagues in another party. Robert Kilroy-Silk was their big draw in 2004 and he ended up splitting the party. Last time, the party thought it a wheeze to but former EU Commission official Marta Andreasen on the ticket: she spent the last four years as a thorn in Nigel Farage’s side and finally switched to the Tories during the Eastleigh campaign. “Good riddance,” crowed UKIP, citing her acrimonious departures from the OECD and European Commission, but this is a no-win position for them: if she’s right, then the party is a basket case. If they’re right, then did they not realise what they were taking on when they selected her?

The party is on an upward vector, but every time they’ve been on one before, they themselves have ended it with their own poor judgement. The biggest threat to UKIP’s continued success remains UKIP.

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