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)