UK Politics

By-elections leave biggest parties with plenty to ponder

Douglas Carswell and Giles Watling Image copyright Reuters

One night, two by-elections, and the three biggest parties at Westminster with plenty to ponder.


UKIP

UKIP have never had a night like it. For all the hype, attention and victories of recent years, there was one thing this party craved more than anything else: a seat in the Commons.

They managed it, briefly, with the defection of Bob Spink from the Conservatives in 2008. But he was never elected on a UKIP ticket and was gone in 2010.

In Clacton, it's the real deal. Douglas Carswell won and won easily, taking 60% of the vote and a majority of more than 12,000. Note too Mr Carswell's language in his victory speech: "We must be a party for all Britain and all Britons, first and second generation as much as every other."

If Clacton provided the headline, Heywood and Middleton provided the surprise: UKIP nearly won there too. Little wonder party leader Nigel Farage was on the champagne in the pub afterwards.


Conservatives

The faces of Tory activists in Clacton said it all. Imagine how you'd feel if you had to listen to the victory speech of a former colleague who walked out on you and then gave you a walloping to boot.

UKIP are something of a stink bomb for all the big Westminster parties, but a particularly wiffy problem for the Conservatives.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Mark Reckless also quit the Conservatives for UKIP

The Tories will take some comfort from the fact that Douglas Carswell is very popular in Clacton, and analysts say this is a seat particularly suited to UKIP.

The next by-election, in Rochester and Strood in Kent, caused by the defection of Tory Mark Reckless to UKIP, is likely to be a whole lot closer. And psychologically for both parties, it will be huge.


Labour

A couple of weeks ago, Labour's general election supremo Douglas Alexander gave a presentation to party activists. I paraphrase wildly but the gist of one chunk was: "I get the threat from UKIP."

After last night, so will every Labour activist.

For a long time Labour has taken comfort from the damage UKIP was causing the Tories. And yes, evidence suggests they do disproportionately attract former Conservative support.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Liz McInnes retained Heywood and Middleton for Labour but the party's majority was slashed

But UKIP's eighth runners-up spot in a by-election, in Heywood and Middleton, was their sixth in supposedly safe Labour seats.


The Liberal Democrats

For so often the nimble masters of the nifty by-election victory, since joining the coalition the Lib Dems have plunged to near subterranean depths of by-election embarrassment.

They could once claim to be the alternative voice - the label UKIP now wear with pride.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption It was another tough by-election night for Nick Clegg's Lib Dems

In Clacton the Lib Dems finished fifth, with 1.37% of the vote. Things were a bit better in Heywood and Middleton, where they managed 5%.

You don't need to be a maths whizz to get that 5% is not a lot, but consider this.

So dire has been the Lib Dem performance in most by-elections since 2010, in 10 of them they have failed to keep their deposit - the 500 quid a party has to stump up to stand, which is returned if the candidate secures 5% of the vote or more.

So at least in Heywood they got their money back.

Getting their voters back could prove rather trickier.