UKIP surge, but the hard work has only just begun…

There’s only one conclusion we can draw from the three by-elections that took place last week: we’re on the cusp of a political storm.

The old two-party stem is crumbling, the coalition is destined to fail, and frustration with Britain’s membership of the European Union is finally boiling over. Most importantly, UKIP’s latest remarkable surge in mid-Parliament polling marks the coming of age of a party at last ready to mount a genuinely competitive campaign in general elections. Or at least, that’s what Nigel Farage would have us believe.

Of course, in his defence, this isn’t an entirely inaccurate view. There’s no doubt that the polls which took place in Rotherham, Middlesbrough and Croydon were great successes for his candidates. Jane Collins’ 21.8 per cent vote share that was recorded in Rotherham was a new record for the party, and enough to secure second place. Richard Elvin enjoyed a similar outcome in Middlesbrough, coming in second on the back of an 8.1 per cent swing in UKIP’s favour, lending significant credibility to Farage’s assertion that they are now ‘the party of opposition in the North of England’; perhaps even more so with Liberal and Conservative support seemingly in a state of free-fall.

“Whichever way you look at it, UKIP is on the rise… you’re looking at a very different, very confident party.”
Nigel Farage, Leader of the UK Independence Party

Despite this, it would still be a mistake to over-estimate the long term implications of this most recent achievement. By-elections, generally speaking, are far more likely to produce unusual results – more often than not in favour of smaller parties, who can capitalise on heightened public dissatisfaction with the government of the day. But a look at two similar cases from the last decade shows just how difficult it can be to turn localised anomalies such as these into national success in general elections, and the tough battle UKIP must still face if they are to build on their progress.

The Brent East by-election of 2003 provides a perfect illustration. The Labour Party had just taken the country into an enormously controversial war in Iraq, and reforms to public services were yet to bear fruit. As a result, support for the government plummeted, allowing the Liberal Democrats to capitalise emphatically in the polls as the only major party to oppose the war. Given this political climate, it was less surprising than it otherwise might have been to see Charles Kennedy’s Liberal Democrats overturn a 13,000 Labour majority to win the seat, with a share of the vote almost four times as great as they had in 2001. Rather predictably, the media presented this as the beginning of the end for Labour’s spell in government, and many, both inside and outside the Liberal Democratic Party, speculated that they were on the verge of taking Labour’s mantle as the leading opposition to the Tories. Ultimately, such a transformation failed to materialise. The 2005 general election saw a swing of just 3.7 per cent to the Liberals – a far cry from the 28.5 seen in Brent East just two years earlier.

Another by-election anomaly that UKIP would be foolish to forget came in Norwich North’s 2009 by-election. In another era of political turbulence sparked by the MP’s expenses saga, this time it was Farage’s own party that rode the wave of public anger with Westminster. As the biggest party not to have a single elected member in the House of Commons, it proved only too easy for him to present UKIP as the party of the people, and the only credible alternative to what was perceived as a corrupt, elitist Westminster establishment. UKIP went on to secure 11.6 per cent of the vote – similar to Richard Elvin’s performance in Middlesbrough – up from 2.4 in 2005. Once again, this new by-election trend was reversed in the following general election. In 2010, the party’s share of the vote collapsed even more dramatically than the Liberal Democrat’s had after Brent East; it fell to a disappointing 4.4 per cent in the same constituency, and 3.1 nationally. Not one UKIP candidate was returned to Parliament.

Unfortunately for UKIP, there’s precious little to suggest that 2012 will be the exception. Only time will tell whether these latest results will be significant in the long term, or if their renewed sense of optimism will once again prove to be ill-founded. Clearly, if they are to fulfil the potential that comes with being the second party of the North, there is a still an awful lot left to prove. To reach the political maturity required to mount a serious challenge to the status quo, it will take more than just luck; a lot of hard work, sustained media attention and a broader connection with the electorate are only a bare minimum – and Mr Farage would be extremely naïve to think otherwise.

Whichever way you look at it, history is not on his side.