The dust has settled a bit over the weekend after those too very interesting by-election results on Friday. Douglas Carswell holding the seat as a UKIP candidate was quite predictable but the strength of his vote startled me. My hope in Clacton is that people voted for the man, which is what I believe politics should be all about. Carswell’s aim is to serve his constituents and, by most accounts, he’s very good at that. It will, of course, be interesting to see if this holds sway at the General Election or whether people will be content to become party political sheep again. One thing Clacton proved is that UKIP can win a seat outright – the odds were in their favour because of Carswell’s popularity but it’s a message to other areas that if they vote UKIP then they stand a chance of getting UKIP. That blows a cannon hole in David Cameron’s ‘vote UKIP, get Labour’ strategy. That’s not to say that the ‘vote Farage, get Miliband’ line is unreasonable – the two are different lines of attack. The first relates to particular constituencies where it’s plausible UKIP can win outright; the second relates to the possibility that electing UKIP MPs or splitting the Tory vote could let Ed Miliband into Downing Street.
Labour’s problems are different. While the Tories seem to at least understand why their voters are deserting them for UKIP, Labour are bemused. The disconnect between the elite in the party and the average person they expect to vote for them is astronomical. A lot of people are concerned about immigration. That doesn’t make them racist – one of the left’s most frequently used accusations – but these people encounter the front line of services and they’re not happy with what they see in terms of pressures and demands. Schools are struggling, as is the NHS. Case in point, I was in a queue in A&E last night and there was a (I think) Polish man at the front of the queue taking up a lot of time, asking questions in broken English and baffling the receptionist with what he was asking. The woman in front of me turned to her daughter and said ‘if it wasn’t for the f***ing foreigners’ things would be moving at a decent speed. Of course, I understand the irony of this given the dependence of the NHS on foreign workers but this woman was a typical working-class mum in a deprived area – the kind of voter Labour is supposed to represent. Dismissing her irritation as ‘racist’ would no doubt irritate her more. People who use services day in, day out are far more qualified to comment on the effects of immigration on them than the cosseted politicians who hire an adviser to do their thinking for them.
Labour can’t seem to see past the end of their nose on this. That’s why Miliband’s response to the close-run result in Heywood and Middleton was to say that the Tory vote had collapsed in the North West. Well, yes, it has but that’s not really the point, is it? He followed it up by saying that Labour wouldn’t be ‘complacent’ but that’s just what they are being. People have been predicting that UKIP could affect Labour’s vote for a long time, several by-elections have put the theory to the test and come out in UKIP’s favour. If Labour haven’t ‘got it’ by now then why should this latest shock make a difference?
The implications of UKIP’s surge are best left for another day. Because the prospect of Miliband getting into Downing Street scares me too much to contemplate right now.