Douglas Carswell is Ukip's first elected MP. Photo: Getty
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A by-election win for Ukip: but will it repeat the SDP's journey?

Comparing Clacton with Crosby.

Tarquin Fin-tim-lin-bin-whin-bim-lim-bus-stop-F'tang-F'tang-Olé-Biscuitbarrel fought a brave fight but, sadly, could only manage fifth place. Like all the other parties in the Crosby by-election of November 1981, his Monster Raving Loony Party was swept away on the tide that ushered in the first by-election win for the Social Democratic Party. The SDP’s victorious candidate, Shirley Williams, had overturned what had been a safe-as-houses Tory majority to win with a whopping 49 per cent of the vote. How many more people, everyone wondered, were out there just itching to cast their ballots for a mould-breaking alternative to the mainstream parties?

Douglas Carswell’s victory is surely similarly historic. Does that make him the new Shirley Williams, and Ukip the next SDP?  Nigel Farage had better hope not.

At first glance, the parallels are striking. The SDP, like Ukip, clearly benefitted from the fact that voters had lost faith in the traditional top-dogs, Labour and the Conservatives, at the same time that the familiar third-party, the Liberals, had also begun to lose momentum.

Like Ukip, although it was essentially a splinter group from one of the two main parties, the SDP could nonetheless claim to appeal as well to many of the people who had supported its historic rival.

The SDP even managed, like Ukip, to pick up not only voters but paid-up members, too: indeed, at an estimated 145,000 in 1983 (over half of whom had apparently not previously belonged to a political party), it had more than three times the number that Farage’s outfit currently claims to have recruited.

Moreover, although its leaders were perhaps best known for their shared views on Europe, the SDP, like Ukip, was about so much more than that, expressing a deeper dissatisfaction with "politics as usual" and a desire for change across the piece rather than on a single issue.

The SDP could also claim the credit, like Ukip, for ensuring that the existing party with which it was initially most associated eventually moved to adopt much of its platform.

There, however, the similarities end – and, maybe, the warning-lights begin to flash for Farage.

Unlike Ukip, the SDP was created from the top-down, rather than the bottom-up. Without the so-called Gang of Four former ministers who founded it, and without the almost 30 sitting MPs who swiftly jumped ship to join them, it would never have gained the instant credibility that it was afforded by both the media and the electorate, and that pushed it, at one stage, to over 50 per cent support in the polls.

Ukip’s new signing, despite his richly-deserved reputation as an accomplished techno-populist, a committed libertarian and an all-round contrarian, is hardly in the same league as Williams, David Owen, Roy Jenkins, or even the now-forgotten Bill Rodgers.

What also gave the SDP wings (though not, it turned out, legs) was the fact that it, unlike Ukip, went all-out to appeal to the centre-ground of British politics – where most voters, as poll after poll attests, are located. The problem, as it turned out, was that while this remained the case, most of those voters soon (if they were initially inclined towards the Tories) or else eventually (if they normally thought of themselves as Labour) decided that their ideas and interests could be accommodated more-or-less satisfactorily by one or other of the existing alternatives. The economy improved and, along with victory in the Falklands, helped the Conservatives; Neil Kinnock came along and dragged Labour kicking and screaming back to reality.

What ultimately ensured, however, that the SDP went up like the proverbial rocket but came down like the proverbial stick was that it failed to overcome the residual tug of loyalty which most MPs (and wannabe MPs) felt towards the parties that had brought them into politics in the first place. Loyalty which most of those who funded those parties, and many of those who normally voted for those parties, shared with them.

Messrs Carswell and Farage, of course, will argue that, by being more of a bottom-up than a top-down project, Ukip – which has, after all, already lasted nearly twice as long as the SDP – will prove to be a slow-burn success rather than a spectacular failure.

They may be right. After all, loyalty to a party, particularly among voters, is a much rarer commodity than it was back in the early eighties. Ukip has also managed to lure away some very rich ex-Tory donors.

Just as importantly, it can point to constituencies in which it seems to enjoy especially concentrated support, meaning it suffers less than the SDP did from being too thinly-spread. This is the only way that smaller parties – the Lib Dems used to be the archetypal example – can survive and thrive in a First-past-the-post system designed to deny them the seats to which their vote share should arguably entitle them.  An electoral pact might help, too, but if Farage has any sense, Ukip will avoid the SDP’s mistake of getting too closely entwined with another party only to be swallowed up in the aftermath.

Ultimately, however, Ukip can only go so far under the current rules of the game. To really break the mould, it needs – just like the SDP needed but never succeeded – to break the electoral system. If it can’t or won’t do that, then its only hope is to break the Conservative party. Whether that happens is ultimately down to the Tories themselves.

Tim Bale is Professor of Politics Queen Mary University of London and author of The Conservative Party: From Thatcher to Cameron (Polity Press, £14.99)

Tim Bale is professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London.  The second edition of his book, The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron, was published in September 2016 by Polity Press.

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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