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 QMUL. His latest book, Five Year Mission, chronicles Ed Miliband's leadership of the Labour party.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.