Thursday 28 August 2014

Douglas Carswell's Defection: High Stakes

I know it was wrong, but when Douglas Carswell announced his defection to UKIP and the forcing of a by-election in his Clacton constituency, I couldn't help but think "brilliant!". I imagine the prime minister was somewhat less chuffed. His terrible summer has taken a distinct turn for the worst. And as for UKIP it needed something to command the headlines again, and they have successfully captured them with style.

Carswell, however, is not and won't be your archetypal 'kipper. Yes, he agrees with the party's europhobia and wants to see a little Britain paddle out into the mid-Atlantic. But that's about as far as he goes. He's a rare beast among the Tories, a politician who actually takes the hard right, libertarian principles he espouses seriously. Never mind that so-called "libertarianism" is the comfy shoe for capital's iron heel. Still, when Carswell gave his defection speech this morning and praised modern Britain for its tolerance, diversity and, yes, feminism; you don't have to be Mystic Meg to foresee tensions somewhere down the line.

That, however, is the far future. Now is what matters, and this contest is high, high stakes for UKIP and the Tories. For UKIP, it's obvious really. If Carswell wins it shows the party can win a first-past-the-post contest. The morale of 'kippers up and down the land will soar, Tory defections at the yellowing grass roots level will pick up and, more significantly, UKIP's co-religionists on the government benches might be emboldened to take the plunge. For Dave, this is the Tories worst nightmare. Carswell has not so much reopened Tory wounds over Europe, more ripped off the and stuck a whacking great oar in. There will be no talking up the economy and concentrating fire on Labour as per the Crosby playbook, instead Dave has been manoeuvred into trading blows on the ground of UKIP's own choosing, on an issue way down anyone but hard right voters' priority list. Win or lose in Clacton, the Tories will not be able to focus their attention on the centre ground and key marginals. Things were looking grim next year anyway. Carswell has just made their horizon look all the more threatening.

On the outcomes for Clacton, UKIP and the Tories will throw all they can at it. Just like Newark, the entire national apparatus of the Conservative Party will relocate for the duration. Unlike Newark, it is the Tories that are the challenger party. What was a huge majority for them is totally open to contestation.

Except it's not. UKIP have no local councillors, and of the nine seats they hold on Essex County Council, none hail from Clacton. What UKIP does have in its favour is their European election vote. They polled 19,398 votes, as against the Conservatives' 9,981 and Labour's 5,241. The standard, establishment argument is that protest votes tend to fall back in parliamentary elections as "these matter". However, the by-election (which is likely to take place in October) is, like the Euros, a second order election. Because it is an election that "doesn't matter" that huge UKIP vote, plus Carswell's incumbency advantage is likely to swing behind him. Today talk has been of a safe Tory seat becoming a three-way marginal overnight. No. On the basis of what's gone before, the character of the election, and the political mood it could well go from straight from safe Tory to safe UKIP. If seeing that happen doesn't embolden the hard Tory right, nothing will.

The one great unknown in the coming by-election is the anti-UKIP vote, and this is where Labour needs to be serious. In the Newark by-election, we saw the emergence of something novel: an anti-UKIP protest vote. As UKIP's vote has surged, so has a growing, hostile counter-reaction among more centrist voters of all political persuasions. Though a bampot like Roger Helmer was never really any threat to the Tory position there, anecdotal evidence suggests they were helped by voters who would never otherwise support the Conservatives to keep UKIP out. In Clacton, on the basis of the Euro poll, this might happen again. The temptation in London would be for Labour to commit few resources and leave it to the local party to fight off two national mobilisations. This must not happen. Labour needs to fight to be the repository of the anti-UKIP protest vote. The reasoning is quite simple. If we do not work to be the natural home of that reaction, then in the swing seats next year, everywhere on paper UKIP is in with a notional shout of winning, these seats, the ones our party needs to win off the Tories might find them strengthened by an anti-UKIP backlash as they're the "best-positioned" to keep Farage and company out. If I was the Tories, that's the card I'd play.

Clacton is high stakes all round. It's more than a family squabble among the right.


Speedy said...

UKIP will win, plainly.

Don't know if you are right about the effect on national elections (which will themselves be affected by the Scottish vote, which is a genuine unknown) but a question I would ask you is...

If Labour get in to power thanks to a split right vote, so with a large majority of people voting against them, what legitimacy do they have?

The trouble is they will take over a nation (supposedly) inherently hostile to them, which can only lead to further disillusionment with politics, unless of course their politics swerve to the right.

Not very socialist is it.

Phil said...

Such is the nature of the first past the post system. However, all throughout the 80s and 90s there was an anti-Tory majority in national elections. I don't remember that mechanically grinding out left wing sensibilities.

Speedy said...

"I don't remember that mechanically grinding out left wing sensibilities."

No, instead it produced New Labour! ;-)