Get past Tory crowing and Lib Dem nihilism, and the results were pretty bad for everybody at Newark
By elections are rare and exciting things, and between General Elections they and opinion polls are all we political geeks have. Little wonder therefore that we over analyse them to within an inch of their lives, trying to glisten some small morsel of insight into trends and voting patterns.
The consensus is that Newark was a small victory for the Tories, a bit of a let down for UKIP, disappointing for Labour and an outright disaster for the Lib Dems. However I maintain that everybody lost in Newark, even the Tories.
For the Lib Dems the figures speak for themselves. A governing party finishing sixth and losing its eighth deposit in a parliament is humiliating. At least Labour could hide behind the fact that Newark is never going to be a target seat, but this was exactly the sort of place the Lib Dems of five years ago would have fancied their chances at. Sixteen thousand majorities have been overcome before. Coming after the loss of hundreds of councillors and all but one of their MEPs, the scale of the trouncing and the lack of a real explanation or new strategy from Clegg has caused the inevitable leadership doubts. Unless something dramatic happens in the next twelve months, the Lib Dems reward for a taste of government will be a retreat to their south west strongholds.
As mentioned, Newark isn’t a Labour target seat. But the main opposition is falling into a nasty habit of finishing third whenever it’s tested outside of its urban north comfort zone. Labour does not control a county council south of Leeds and even its London redoubt of Tower Hamlets has slipped from its grasp. Labour will get back many voters who switched to the Lib Dems in 2010 but will lose more to UKIP who have astutely positioned themselves as the party of the white working class, a group Labour lazily assumed would be theirs forever. This probably won’t matter in the towns of northern England. UKIP aren’t big enough (yet) and the Tories and Lib Dems are a hollowed out husk of their former selves. But Labour will have a problem trying to be a national party when the south remains hostile terrain.
There are, in reality, two UKIPs. The UKIP leadership is surprisingly calm, nuanced and realistic about its abilities. Thus Roger Helmer was selected to stand in Newark; well known enough to show the flag, by knowing they weren’t going to come close to winning, not UKIP’s trump card of Nigel Farage. Indeed, Farage didn’t even visit Newark during the campaign. The Tory majority was halved and the UKIP vote share increased significantly. This is a good result in the real world of politics.
The other UKIP is that of its members. Enthusiastic amateurs and often new to politics, expectations are wildly optimistic and often bordering on fantastical. Criticism and scrutiny of their party is actually evidence of a LibLabCon media conspiracy, and the temptation of echo chamber debates lead many a member to assume that everybody thinks like they do and thus victory is assured simply by being on the ballot. For these members, Newark was a bit of a blow and it risks taking the steam out of UKIP momentum that shrugs off scandals and gaffes that politicos cream over but in reality have little impact on real voters.
UKIP spent a lot of resources on the European Elections and in that narrow sense it paid off. However the new members alone won’t fill the coffers enough to fight a general election campaign on anything like the scale the other three will.
The Tories had no excuse for not winning handsomely in Newark given the effort they put in. Ministers, material and members were shipped at a rate and scale that would have made a Soviet Logistics Corps envious. Yet their majority was halved and vote share dropped by nearly five percent. Yes, it’s a mid term election and yes it was just after coming third in the European Elections, but this is one of the Conservative Party’s safest seats, and was against ramshackle UKIP, a token effort by Weird Ed’s Labour, and Lib Dems that are just running down the clock till 2015. The General Election won’t be as forgiving and nor will it allow the Tory election machine to focus it’s efforts as much as it did in Newark.
The Tory Party is all but extinct in many northern towns, with branches and associations in parts of the country existing only on paper. Add in the UKIP wild card and Cameron needs to hope the economy keeps recovering and that Labour keep Ed Miliband at the fore, given his distinctly non Prime Ministerial look and feel among voters.