Make yourself a cuppa, pull up a comfy chair, and watch. Since Douglas Carswell’s surprise/no-surprise defection to UKIP yesterday and the forcing of a by-election in Clacton, there will be some in the party tempted to adopt this attitude. And not without good reason. Consider the previous by-election outings over the last year or so.
In Eastleigh, a Liberal Democrat/Tory marginal, from nowhere, became a LD/UKIP marginal. The Conservatives were dumped into third place and our vote stagnated at just under the 10% mark.
Consider Newark this June. Always something of a no-hope seat for Labour, the UKIP surge was never going to be enough to see off the Tories but it did make sure our party came a distant third. Our vote share slid by almost five percentage points as the two main combatants framed the contest as a UKIP-Tory fight.
In Eastleigh we selected a relatively high profile candidate, which enjoyed modest support from the national party. In Newark our established candidate and CLP was more or less left to their own devices. With UKIP throwing everything they have into Carswell’s re-election, and the Conservatives virtually moving their entire national operation to Clacton for the durée, the national leadership might wish to continue hoarding resources for the election proper next year and pass on fighting the good fight.
This would be a very big mistake.
Anecdotally, doorstep conversations and reports from Newark suggested the emergence of something new and potentially significant: an anti-UKIP protest vote. Protest voting against the ‘official’ protest party is novel, but it is not entirely without precedent. After all, Hope Not Hate, Searchlight, and Unite Against Fascism have expended a great deal of resource down the years encouraging an anti-BNP, anti-fascist vote to keep them out of office. In Newark, it is quite possible that a chunk of the missing Labour vote did not cross the floor to UKIP but rather transferred to the Tories to thwart Roger Helmer’s ambitions.
Labour needs to be the repository of the anti-UKIP protest vote.
The reasoning is quite simple. Up and down the country there are dozens of swing seats we need to win back from the Conservatives. On paper, the additional factor of UKIP makes more of these seats winnable. As they eat away at Tory associations and mobilise previously loyal Conservative voters, so the threshold of Labour victories are reduced. Yet voting is not a mechanical process. All kinds of uncertainties come into play. Like the anti-UKIP vote. While it is true people will be voting for a new government next year, just as some will stubbornly stick to UKIP and other parties with no chance of forming one, so an unknown number of voters will cast their ballots for the candidates they think are best placed to defeat UKIP. Assuming Carswell wins, and I think he will, UKIP will have added momentum and be more of a concern to moderate voters. What this means for Labour is that in Tory and LibDem marginals, it is quite possible that a sliver of voters will plump for their incumbents as a means of keeping UKIP out. It doesn’t matter that they may not have a realistic chance of winning that seat: people generally think about general elections in national terms, not the political intricacies of their own parliamentary constituencies. They see the grotesqueries of Farage, Nuttall, Hamilton, O’Flynn, etc. strutting about on television, and vote accordingly.
In Clacton then Labour has to put in the work to win over this vote, and not let it casually be scooped up by the Tories. Yes, while the seat today is a very different beast to the one our party used to hold 1997-2005, it’s full of the people we need to win over to win in 2015. And it’s not as though we do not have a policy agenda that does not speak to white, working class retirees. The NHS is our strongest suit here. But we also have plenty to say about pensions, utility bills, and housing and opportunities for their children.
Labour’s appeal does, or at least should, lie in it being the antithesis of all the rotten things UKIP stands for. We can be the natural home of anti-UKIP protest votes, and should be prepared to fight for that label wherever their ugly head is reared. Because if we don’t, it might cost us – and the people of Britain – dearly no too far down the line.