The parliamentary by-election results announced this morning make for more interesting reading than those of a fortnight ago. While Corby told us something about the current fortunes of Britain’s two largest political parties, the result in Rotherham tells us something about the UK’s fastest growing party: Ukip.
Even before today it’s been quite a month for Nigel Farage’s crew. They had recorded their greatest share of the vote up to that point – 14% - in the Corby by-election on 15 November. If they thought Christmas had come early with that result, they then must have thought all their Christmases had come at once when the news broke about Rotherham Council removing three foster children from the care of a couple – for the sole reason that the couple were Ukip members. This gifted Ukip national media coverage on a powerful local story within days of a by-election in Rotherham itself. And still there was more. Tory Party Deputy Chairman Michael Fabricant had another present – a kite – an idea he was flying about some kind of electoral pact between the Conservatives and Ukip at the next election. Nigel Farage and the Prime Minister were both quick to turn down an offer that neither of them had made, but the result was the kind of wall-to-wall favourable media coverage Nigel Farage would cut off his right arm for. Oh, and don’t forget that apparently eight Tory MPs have “held talks” with senior Ukip figures about defecting.
Had Ukip (or any minor party for that matter) ever enjoyed such perfect conditions in the run up to a by election? In making the running as the anti-establishment party and the depository of protest votes was not a bad place to be considering the Rotherham by-election itself had been caused by the incumbent Labour MP resigning after being caught fiddling his expenses. For Ukip, Labour and the Tories just seem to be the gifts that keep on giving right now.
In the end, of course, people still voted Labour. Sarah Champion kept Rotherham red with 9,866 votes. Ukippers will no doubt celebrate coming second with 4,648 and to be fair it’s their best ever finish and highest ever share of the vote.
So, congratulations on achieving second place and that 21.8% of the vote. But guess what – this isn’t school sports day. It’s not the taking part that counts. In British politics it’s winning that counts, only winning, and Ukip have won nothing. Despite a truly wonderful and quite unique set of electoral circumstances, Ukip could still not secure what is proving so elusive for them: an elected Member of Parliament.
The superb Dan Hodges at the Telegraph spells out why Ukip is not surfing a wave, but standing in a rock pool watching the tide go out. First, our first-past-the-post electoral system prevents minor parties from making breakthroughs. Second, Ukip “have no money, no infrastructure and no activists. They have no organisational expertise, no strategy expertise and no policy expertise.” Third, they are seen by most voters as a single issue party (and it will take more than a few cosmetic changes to throw this off).
To this I would a fourth problem. The closer Ukip get to electoral success, the closer people will look at them. The public don’t know very much about the party that lines up behind the incredibly impressive Nigel Farage, to whom Ukip pretty much owes all of its success. Comments that, for instance, it is “child abuse” to allow gay couples to adopt will be given greater prominence.
Expect Ukip to win lots of seats in the European elections in 2014. Don’t expect them to win any in the 2015 general election.
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Many thanks to Andrew Sparrow for a mention on the Guardian's Politics Live blog