There were two shocks in the result of the recent parliamentary by-elections in Clacton in Essex and Heywood and Middleton in Greater Manchester writes Michael Pickens.
Firstly, the scale of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) victory in winning their first parliamentary election in Clacton, where Tory defector Douglas Carswell won nearly 60% of the vote, thrashing all the other parties including his former Conservative Party whose vote more than halved.
Secondly, and arguably more significantly, UKIP came within 617 votes of toppling a Labour majority in a seat that was assumed to be a ‘safe Labour Northern Working Class’ seat.
The implications of these shock results are likely to have a profound effect on politics in the run-up to the British General Election in May 2015.
Carswell’s victory was well predicted from the moment in August he announced his defection as the constituency’s Member of Parliament from Conservative to UKIP. According to the media narrative, he was a ‘well-respected’ MP who had taken the ‘honourable’ step of standing in a by-election under his new colours. In winning the seat, he had laid to rest the ghost that defectors do not win in by-elections, last tested by former Labour MP Bruce Douglass-Mann in Mitcham and Morden in 1982 when, alone among many MPs defecting to the Social Democratic Party, he put his new allegiance to the test and suffered a humiliating defeat, handing the seat to the Conservative Party for the next 15 years. However it has occasionally been known for defectors to hold their seats, though the last such occasion was way back in 1973 Labour right-winger Dick Taverne created his short-lived split ‘Democratic Labour’, but only managed to hold his seat for another year until he was defeated in October 1974.
Carswell was always the favourite to win the Clacton by-election as he had both a personal following and UKIP had already done well enough to win in Clacton in local and European elections. This naturally led to cynical observations that if he had not defected at this time, UKIP would have won the seat anyway next May.
However, Labour was wrong to say that the Clacton result was just a by-election in the ‘Tory’s backyard’ and was therefore more concern for Cameron’s party and irrelevant to themselves. Unlike many other seats where UKIP have recently become the main challenger to the Tories, most of the Clacton constituency was part of a seat held by Labour as recently as the 2001 and 1997 general elections (Harwich). Like the Tories, the Labour vote in Clacton also more than halved from 25.0% to 11.2%. The Liberal Democrat vote crashed to near oblivion and a further lost deposit in a by-election (12.9% to 1.3%), but Labour was not the beneficiary of that collapse. A LibDem collapse benefitting Labour has been something Labour leaders for the last couple of years have been assuming would ease them into government in 2015 without too much difficulty.
The UKIP circus now moves on to Kent for the by-election in the Rochester and Strood constituency caused by the other recent Conservative-to-UKIP defector, Mark Reckless. Reckless’ defection was paraded at the recent UKIP conference, upstaging the first day of the Conservative Party and creating panic into their ranks. While Reckless is criticised strongly by Tories for lying about his defection and not being a ‘good’ MP, this seems to have had little impact on his chances and the constituency polls taken even before Carswell’s victory showed him coasting to victory to become UKIP’s second elected MP. This now seems a foregone conclusion. But nor can Reckless’ constituency be dismissed again by Labour as another ‘Tory Backyard’. The maverick Labour left-winger Bob Marshall-Andrews held this identical seat for thirteen years from 1997 to 2010 before losing to Reckless (confusingly the constituency was renamed from Medway for the 2010 poll). Indeed the wider Medway area has a long history of Labour parliamentary representation going right back to the historic 1906 general election when the Labour Representation Committee won the Chatham  seat with a candidate, who was no less than a former president of the Trades Union Congress. [To celebrate its victory in this seat and a couple of dozen others, the, then tiny, in parliamentary terms, Labour Representation Committee decided to rename itself “The Labour Party”].
Tanks on the Lawn?
The opening hour of the UKIP conference in September portended the challenge that UKIP are posing to Labour. The conference was held in Doncaster in what was once described as the “Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire”, home to Labour leader Ed Miliband’s own parliamentary constituency of Doncaster North. UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, announced to the great acclaim of UKIP’s conference-goers, that his party was ‘parking its tanks on Labour’s lawn’. Speaker after speaker then proceeded to attack Labour in broad Yorkshire and other working class accents. It started with two UKIP Doncaster councillors, one a former miner, saying how Labour had abandoned the working class, and followed through by a UKIP organiser who was an Irish immigrant and a parliamentary candidate who was introduced as “the next MP for Rotherham”.
Heywood and Middleton
Given UKIP’s showing in Heywood and Middleton, where they shot sensationally from 2.6% in 2010 to 38.7%, presenting UKIP as the likely winner in Rotherham, where Labour has become embroiled in ignoring child-abuse scandals, is no longer as far-fetched as it may have seemed a few months ago.
Heywood and Middleton is a dramatic example of the ‘land-that-New-Labour-forgot’. It is a highly deprived working class area – Middleton has a huge overspill council estate from Manchester, Langley, with Manchester telephone numbers and postcodes but with none of the alleged advantages of regeneration of that City; Heywood is a small town that was left over in the local government reorganisation of the 1970s and was attached to Rochdale Borough Council rather than Bury (which is nearer and where its residents more easily relate to). Both populations are relatively stable and mainly white, compared to multicultural Rochdale town itself with a large Asian population. While both Heywood and Middleton have loyally voted Labour over decades, they have seen little benefits as the larger Rochdale town has battled it out between Labour and Liberals, each promising to spend more on Rochdale in return for being elected to control the council or the volatile Rochdale parliamentary constituency. It’s hardly surprising that Heywood and Middleton residents have felt left out and alienated, something that UKIP easily capitalised on. The late MP Jim Dobbin, whose death caused the by-election, was a popular and likeable ‘Old Labour’ character who had a left wing reputation in voting against the Iraq war, but had a weakness as a traditional Catholic in opposing abortion rights and gay marriage. He set up an informal network of ‘Old Labour’ councillors and activists, some of whom worked for him in his constituency office. But the local Labour Party was more based on patronage than principled activism. When the scandals on child abuse that embroiled Rochdale Council exploded late last year, anyone associated with the Council became too toxic for Labour to consider as a parliamentary candidate. So when Dobbin died, there was no obvious local successor. Instead Labour chose an Oxford-educated councillor from nearby Rawtenstall, safely away from Rochdale Borough it was hoped. However in terms of Middleton and Heywood this might as well have been a foreign country, and the hapless Liz McInnes had to give for her minders from Labour HQ a speech that turned the reality of the election result on its head by describing it as a great victory for Ed Miliband’s ‘Plan for Britain’, to guffaws of amusement from the crowd at the count.
Labour has pointed to the fact that its share of the vote in Heywood and Middleton went up marginally (from 40.1% to 40.9%). However this ignores the fact that the LibDem and Tory votes collapsed completely without materially benefitting Labour. Labour had previously scored 57.7% in this constituency back in 1997 and 2001 so a much larger Labour vote was there to be won in a situation where the Tories and LibDems should be on the defensive. But just looking at the vote totals does not tell the whole story. Rather than every single vote lost by the LibDems and Tories going to UKIP, it is far more likely that a more complex movement was underway with significant number of former LibDem and Tory voters switching to Labour, while a similar number of Labour voters switched to UKIP. (The Green Party standing for the first time put up the only principled stand against austerity and racism, with a young candidate getting a creditable 3.1% and chasing to overtake the LibDems).
What then is the state of the parties nationally after these two by-elections and assuming another victory for UKIP in the forthcoming Rochester and Strood by-election?
Before 2014 previous European election successes for UKIP did not transfer to subsequent General Elections and the party flopped. In the European Elections earlier this year UKIP topped the poll for the first time and won a record number of MEPs. But there appears to be no sign currently of a repeat of the subsequent flop in sight. In fact UKIP’s European vote was already bolstered by their strong performance in the council elections in 2013 and directly transferred across from European to local government election in 2014. They are now being repeated in parliamentary by-elections. It’s still too soon to be sure, but it looks very likely that UKIP will retain a large proportion of its European election vote in next year’s general election. This represents a major challenge for the left as UKIP’s right wing anti-foreigner and anti-immigrant message is dragging British politics well to the right as the three main parties try to ape their rhetoric.
Of course, it is still the case that the Conservatives face a bigger threat from UKIP. Peter Kellner, head of polling organisation YouGov, claims that three times as many voters are switching from Conservatives to UKIP than Labour to UKIP . This is probably broadly accurate. However, Kellner assumes that the broad brush scale of UKIP’s votes are still unlikely to bring it significant electoral breakthrough in Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system. The point is that UKIP’s growth has a very different effect from constituency to constituency. Recent national opinion polls have shown a small Tory lead over Labour after Miliband’s disastrous performance at the Labour conference in Manchester. While this is likely to switch back to a small Labour lead nationally, both major parties are struggling to break the 35% barrier. Back in 1951, Labour and Tories won nearly 96% of the vote between them. In 2015 their combined vote looks likely to be less than 66%.
Labour’s ‘35% Strategy’
There have been recent discussions in Labour circles about the so-called ‘35% strategy’, where Labour could clinch an overall parliamentary victory with only 35% of the national vote by shrewd targeting of marginal constituencies. However this strategy assumes that Labour can hold on to its own seats from its miserable nadir of the 2010 General Election, and that deserting Tories and particularly LibDems will swing to Labour in 2015. UKIP’s performance severely upsets that prognosis. Indeed some analyses show both Labour and marginal seats that it must win to form a parliamentary majority under threat from a resurgent UKIP. The Fabian Society has recently produced an analysis based on demographic factors showing where Labour is at risk from a UKIP challenge . This analysis is heavily based on the sociological research of UKIP’s vote and the use of the British Election Study by Matthew Goodwin and Robert Ford . But as David Renton has shown , this analysis is fundamentally flawed in assuming that certain working class communities have always had a predilection to voting Labour. In fact, as the history of racist politics in Britain has shown, there has always been a significant Tory working class vote ranging from Unionist and monarchist voters, to those supporting anti-immigrant rhetoric in Smethwick in 1964 and working class support for Enoch Powell in the late 1960s. [Let it not also be forgotten that the racist stereotype of the Alf Garnett character in the popular TV sitcom ‘Till Death Us Do Part’ was thoroughly working class.]
Nevertheless, other evidence from the local elections in 2014 also produced by the Fabian Society  indicates that in small number of constituencies Labour was defeated by UKIP in seats it currently holds in parliament. These seats are: Dudley North, Great Grimsby, Rotherham, Rother Valley, Plymouth Moor View and Penistone and Stockbridge. In addition, a small number of Tory seats marginal that Labour were hoping to win have fallen to UKIP in local elections. These are Cleethorpes, Great Yarmouth and possibly Harlow. Demographically Hull North is also susceptible to a growth in UKIP presence and there are more than a dozen further seats where the direction of the UKIP vote could affect Labour’s chances. What all these seats have in common is that they are outside the major city conurbations of London and the North of England, and therefore considered more on the ‘fringes’ of British urban society and working class concentrations.
Meanwhile the LibDem vote has held up in local elections in a few LibDem seats that Labour hoped to win easily (Birmingham Yardley, Bermondsey and Old Southwark and Leeds North West) while in Norwich South the Green Party are now the main challenge for Labour.
Realistically Labour is not likely lose more than a handful of seats as a result of UKIP’s growth, and the Tories many more, the impact of UKIP could still be a major factor in what is set to be the closest General Election in many years.
The other major new factor that will affect Labour’s chance in the General Election is its performance in Scotland. The ‘35% Strategy’ relies on Labour returning 40+ MPs from Scotland to the Westminster parliament. But in the recent Scottish Independence Referendum, dozens of Labour parliamentary constituencies are likely to have given a majority ‘Yes’ vote (the only constituency counts were carried out in Glasgow and Edinburgh and were based on the boundaries for the Scottish parliament seats rather than Westminster, but it is telling that every Glasgow seat held by Labour showed a ‘yes’ majority). Labour could face the loss of up to 20 parliamentary seats in Scotland to pro-independence forces. Even if they retain 20 they could be impotent as part of a governmental majority, if they are debarred (as seems likely) from voting on England-only legislation.
Given the potential collapse of the LibDem party, t is therefore quite possible that not only might there be a hung parliament but there may not be a simple coalition that can command a working majority. Either Labour or the Tories might have to turn to other parties, potentially bringing the most reactionary forces, UKIP and the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party, into negotiations on government support.
How to fight UKIP?
Labour is potentially courting electoral disaster and playing with fire by failing to combat UKIP’s anti-immigration policy that plays on the impact of austerity on the working class majority. More than ever there is a need for a principled opposition to Labour’s austerity. In supporting migrant rights and fighting immigration controls, Left Unity has shown that it has the policies and activists to begin that fightback.
Sadly, one of the largest left groups, the declining Socialist Workers Party, have instead committed themselves to standing outside UKIP conference and shouting about how racist they are through megaphones. This does nothing to campaign in the Labour Movement against racism. Instead in every community, town and city there needs to be an effort to build a genuine mass anti-racist movement that fights for migrant rights in the community and workplace and combats the ideas that UKIP feeds on .
 Chatham in Medway was the only area in the whole of South East England outside London represented at the founding conference of Keir Hardie’s Independent Labour Party in Bradford in 1893, in many ways the founding of the electoral challenge represented by today’s Labour Party (H Pelling, Origins of the Labour Party, 1965).
[2 ] P Kellner, Do Angry UKIP voters threaten Tory future?, YouGov website, 13 October 2014
 M Roberts, Revolt on the Left, Fabian Society, 2014
 R Ford and M Goodwin, Revolt on the Right, 2014
 D Renton, UKIP: a party of the dispossessed taking votes from Labour?, livesrunning.wordpress.com, 8 October 2014
 L Baston & M Roberts, Election 2014: The numbers, Fabian Society, 2014
 This perspective and discussion about how to build an anti-racist movement is developed further in a piece in the International Socialist Network Autumn Bulletin Number 2 entitled ‘A new perspective in the battle against racism and fascism’, 11th September 2014, in a piece by David Renton ‘Anti-fascism without fascists: how should the left organise against UKIP?’ on livesrunning.wordpress.com, 12th September 2014, and in a piece on the Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century (RS21) website called ‘How can we defeat UKIP? 5 points to consider’, rs21.org.uk, 27th September 2014.