To few people’s surprise, UKIP’s Mark Reckless, a former Conservative Party MP for Rochester and Strood, regained his seat in Kent on Thursday’s by-election. He won with 16,867 votes – 42 per cent of votes cast – reducing his previous party to second place with 13,947 votes – 35 per cent of votes cast, which was a smaller gap than the pollsters predicted. The Tories’ ‘kitchen sink’ may have been thrown at the Mr Reckless’s campaign, but, ultimately proved futile.
However, with the Tories claiming victory due to the smaller than predicted gap between UKIP and them; with Labour claiming victory because the Tories lost a seat; and UKIP claiming victory because, well, they actually won, what is the true significance of this by-election result?
Well, from the outset, the result may seem unequivocal: UKIP are on the march. Only a couple of months ago, the party had zero seats in the House of Commons, and now they have two. What is more, at least according to Mr Reckless, Rochester and Strood was UKIP’s 271st most winnable seat. So, if they can win there, they can win anywhere.
The reality is, however, somewhat different. The fact that this was a by-election where people often vent their political frustrations by voting for a more radical party, combined with UKIP’s lower than expected share of the vote, showed that it is likely that the Conservatives will win back Rochester and Strood at the general election in May. Ironically, the significance of Thursday’s by-election had nothing to do with UKIP’s victory, the Conservative’s temporary loss of seats, Labour’s extremely mediocre result or the Liberal Democrats’s abyssmal performance having been overtaken by the Greens and coming last.
No, the real significance of Thursday’s by-election has much more to do with Labour’s perception of working-class people, or, more specifically, the fallout of Emily Thornberry’s ‘contemptuous’ tweet of a photo of a terraced house with England flags draped over it, whilst a white van was parked outside, and the heavily implicit caption, ‘Image from #Rochester’. This, of course, led to Ms Thornberry’s ‘forced resignation’ – also known as sacking – by Ed Miliband.
And so, that old-age issue, which has plagued the Labour party since the days of Neil Kinnock, of abandoning its traditional working-class demographic, is back with a vengeance – and with only 6 months to the general election.
Ed Miliband may have been looking forward to last Thursday’s by-election shifting the spotlight from his dismal polling to Mr Cameron’s woes due to UKIP’s trouncing of the Tories in Rochester and Strood, but Ms Thornberry’s tweet has made sure the spotlight remains firmly on Ed Miliband and his party’s turmoil. With UKIP now in a position to take the place of Labour as the party for the working class, where does this leave the Labour and its traditional core-vote? Because Ms Thornberry’s Gillian Duffy moment led to her swift sacking – albeit initially reluctant – Ed Miliband’s leadership, once
again, has come into question, and has given the Conservatives, as well as UKIP, ammunition to snipe at Labour for ‘sneering’ at Britain’s working classes.
When Douglas Carswell, UKIP‘s newly elected MP and former Tory, said that the ‘Labour leadership despises ordinary folk’ and is “no longer in touch with working people’, this may have been an exaggeration, but it appears to hold some credence. It is certainly in UKIP’s interest to steal the diminishing working-class vote from Labour, not only because it is a huge demographic, but because it is also becoming more attainable.
But this is a serious problem for Labour, and some senior Labour MPs understand this. Although Ms Thornberry’s tweet itself may not have been groundbreaking, it has highlighted how mishandled the situation has been, and that there are, quite simply, not enough shadow cabinet members whose interests seem to be with the working-class – a point Graham Stringer, Labour MP for Blackley and Broughton, had noted. Indeed, Mr Stringer said that it is partly due to many MPs starting off as special advisors, rather than working in ‘supermarkets and on building sites’, thus making it difficult for the party to connect with traditional working people.
This is Labour Party’s most significant problem, and the by-election has highlighted this. The Conservative Party may have taken a bit of a blow by losing Rochester and Strood, but what this election has shown is that Labour cannot lose its growing negative perception from within the working-class whilst Ed Miliband is leader. What amplifies the issue even more is the denial from some senior Labour MPs – not to mention Ms Thornberry herself – as they do not even believe her sacking was called for. For instance, Alan Johnson, viewed the incident as hardly a ‘resignation scandal’, and Austin Mitchell, MP for Great Grimsby, referred to her sacking as ‘totally unnecessary’ and that the ‘leader has bigger things to worry about’. But the only problem is, this incident has highlighted one of those bigger problems.
It may be true that UKIP is hoovering up some disaffected working-class Labour voters, and there may be talk of more Tory MPs leaving to join UKIP – notably Philip Hollobone, the Conservative MP for Kettering – but the Rochester and Strood by-election and UKIP’s win are simply a symptom of Labour’s serious problem with its traditional demographic, much like the SNP showed during the Scottish referendum on independence.
Ultimately, the real test for Labour and Ed Miliband will be to see if they can keep potentially disillusioned Labour MPs from defecting to UKIP, and to stop their traditional voters from also moving towards UKIP.
By Alastair Layne
Junior Writer at Daily Political View