There were two by-elections this Thursday for UK parliament constituencies, both in England: Clacton-on-Sea, in Essex, and Heywood & Middleton, in Greater Manchester.
The Clacton one isn’t particularly interesting: a vaguely crazy Tory MP decided to defect to UKIP, as MPs are allowed to do in a Westminster system, and decided to waste everyone’s time while buying publicity for his new party with public money by holding a by-election instead of hanging on until the general election in May 2015. He won, because Clacton is full of horrible bigots. The Labour vote share went up, albeit from barely anything to not very much.
The Heywood by-election is more normal, in that it came about because the local MP inconveniently died, but also more interesting.
Heywood is traditionally a reasonably safe Labour seat. But it’s not a “they weigh the vote here” seat like Clacton used to be for the Tories, of the sort that Labour still have in poorer, more industrial northern English and southern Scottish cities: in the 2010 General Election, Labour took 40% of the vote, the Tories took 27% and the Lib Dems took 23%. UKIP, in their previous incarnation as mostly harmless vaguely posh cranks, got 2.6%; the outright-fascist BNP got 7%.
In yesterday’s by-election, Labour’s share of the vote held up: they got 41%. The Liberal Democrats were pulverised, with their vote share falling to 5%. The Tories were badly damaged, with their vote share falling to 12%, and the BNP didn’t stand. UKIP benefited from all of these changes, with their vote share rising to 39%.
The concept of Lib Dems switching to UKIP seems weird, but it was borne out by Tory strategist Lord Ashcroft’s polling after the Eastleigh by-election, where Lib Dem-to-UKIP switchers were the largest single group. This reflects the fact that a lot of people voting Lib Dem in 2010 did so because they hate the Tories and Labour, not because they are committed to economically-centrist civil-libertarian ideas.
Hopefully we’ll get some detailed post-vote polling data on the dynamics in play at Heywood. I suspect we may not, as it is certainly not a Tory target seat and so may not be worth Lord Ashcroft’s money – I’ll do some more detailed analysis on switching if we do. But on the face of it, it would appear that in Tory areas, UKIP is capable of taking significant numbers of Tory votes, to the point where it will win some seats outright and – more importantly – cost the Tories enough votes in marginal seats to win them for Labour.
In Labour areas, the best UKIP can manage is to bring together angry Tories, ex-neo-Nazis, and the people who voted Lib Dem in 2010 out of spite – which could plausibly win it a seat or two in its own right (although it’s worth noting that by-elections always exaggerate the crank party vote, because they’re far more likely to bother turning up), but certainly won’t lose Labour any seats to the Tories, and should actually help Labour out in seats that were close Labour/Conservative marginals in 2010.
If the way things played out on Thursday night is the way they play out in Westminster in May 2015, Ed Miliband will be the next Prime Minister, leading a government with a working majority. Don’t listen to the idiots who are pretending this is equally bad news for both major parties.