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10 October 2014updated 05 Oct 2023 8:19am

Ukip takes Clacton: what does this mean?

Douglas Carswell is Ukip’s first elected MP. What does this mean for politics and his party?

By Anoosh Chakelian

Ukip has won the Clacton by-election by 12,404 votes.

Here are the full results:

Ukip – 21,113 votes (59.7 per cent)

Conservatives – 8,709 votes (24.6 per cent)

Labour – 3,957 (11.20 per cent)

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The Green party – 688 (1.95 per cent)

Liberal Democrats – 483 votes (1.37 per cent)

Turnout was 51 per cent.

Using Nigel Farage’s language ahead of yesterday’s by-election in Clacton, there has been a “shift in the tectonic plates of British politics”. Douglas Carswell, the former Tory MP who defected from the party in August, is Ukip’s first elected MP. The party that has been spooking the Conservatives and Labourites alike throughout this parliament has finally placed an elected representative in parliament.

Here are five thoughts on what this means:

If you vote Ukip, you get Ukip

One of Ukip’s biggest obstacles come the general election is going to be overcoming the “wasted vote” concern. Angry protest votes are usually reserved for local and European elections, when the electorate can send a message to our leaders without much to lose. But the idea of “wasting” one’s vote in a general election is different, particularly with First-past-the-post making it tough for smaller parties to win seats.

Accordingly, the Conservatives’ attack on Ukip has long been “Vote Ukip, get Labour”. This is less effective now the electorate can see an elected Ukip MP in the House of Commons. An interesting footnote, however, is that, in contrast, Labour’s attack line that Ukip is “more Tory than Tories” has more resonance now, what with Carswell having defected from the Conservative party. Following another Tory defection from Mark Reckless, Ukip will ideally be looking to pinch a Labour figure next.

Not all Kippers are the same

The off-putting image of a stereotypical Ukip figure – generally unreconstructed hyper-Thatcherite views, old-fashioned, fusty, backward-looking, “closet racist”, etc – is undermined by Carswell’s win. As an individual, he is more nuanced, with big ideas about harnessing technology to resurrect grassroots political engagement: “iDemocracy”. He even allied with the Green MP Caroline Lucas in 2010 to push for proportional representation to be included in the referendum on electoral reform. And that was before he was a member of a party that would benefit from such a system. As a Tory backbencher, he shook up Westminster with his ideas about direct democracy and a recall system to oust MPs.

This adds an interesting dimension to the make-up of Ukip’s party leadership. We are already reading about the split between “Red Ukip” and the party’s older school, as it opens up another front in its anti-Westminster war, attempting to win blue-collar support off Labour. Now there is also a bit of a personality split. Carswell with his radical libertarian modernisation certainly jars with the blokey, laid-back image of Farage puffing on a fag and sipping from his Thatcher mug.

British Future’s Sunder Katwala is interesting on this, analysing Carswell’s “future-facing Ukip” with his pro-immigration views and optimism. This is in spite of the fact that Carswell, on the surface, seems like the discontented southern shire Tories whose support Ukip looks towards. There isn’t exactly a power struggle here yet, and no real indication that Carswell would look to lead the party, but he could well face a challenge taking Ukip in his desired direction as its only MP.

A purple heartland on the east coast

This by-election result has geographic significance. Ukip is polling best on the east coast of England, all the way from Great Grimsby in the north down to Norfolk. Lord Ashcroft’s polling puts Ukip as the most popular party in constituencies nearby to Clacton, Thurrock and Thanet South (where Farage is standing).

Star Ukip academics and authors of Revolt on the Right, Rob Ford and Matthew Goodwin, write about the east coast’s significance:

Ukippers need seats with a competitive local politics. Our analysis suggests that many of these can be found in a large cluster along the east coast from Durham to Norfolk: Great Grimsby (Labour), Great Yarmouth (Conservative), Waveney (Conservative), Hartlepool (Labour) and Bishop Auckland (Labour).

A sitting Ukip MP in Clacton will do much to galvanise surrounding Ukip campaigns in Essex, Kent, Norfolk, and Cambridgeshire. Local Ukip candidates and activists will have seen – and probably been involved in – the energetic campaign Carswell has run in Clacton. This example, along with positive polling, will boost morale, which could well translate into votes come May 2015.

Labour pains

Labour won in yesterday’s other by-election, holding Heywood and Middleton in Greater Manchester after the death of its Labour MP, Jim Dobbin. But only just. Its majority in the erstwhile safe seat was slashed by Ukip to 617. Its majority plummeted by 90 per cent. As I reported yesterday morning, there were concerns about the prominence of Ukip’s campaign in the seat, and this competition caused some in the party to question Labour’s national message as a good enough buffer to Ukip in northern seats. One Labour aide campaigning in the constituency told me the party’s leadership is “completely out-of-touch” with the concerns of voters such as Heywood and Middleton’s.

And in Clacton, Labour lost a substantial number of votes, falling from 10,799 in 2010 to 3,957. This is further proof that the party cannot be complacent about Ukip’s rise, viewing it simply as a convenient threat to the Tory vote. The party will surely revel in the Tories losing a seat to Ukip, but it should have done better in that result itself, not least in Heywood and Middleton, and must avoid distraction from the task of keeping its voters from drifting to Ukip.

By-election blues for the Blues

And as for the Conservatives, this Clacton win is very bad news. A combination of Carswell’s strong personal following in the area, and it being an incredibly “Ukip-friendly” seat, meant that it was an almost certain win for their former backbencher, yet it is still a big blow. In spite of the trouble Ukip has caused the Tories, they could always dismiss it as a protest party, one with no credibility and no real power. Now it has an MP, they can no longer lord it over Ukip that they are an organised, established party with real influence; one of their favourite lines having always been that they are the only ones with the actual power to deliver an EU referendum.

The Clacton result is also likely to throw the Tories into panic-mode as they approach the Rochester and Strood by-election, where they will be fighting their second defector Mark Reckless in a far more closely-contested battle. All a bit much for a party whose election strategist, Lynton Crosby, was so keen to avoid by-elections that he insisted the EU Commissioner job should go to a peer, not a sitting Tory MP.

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