October 9, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith
Today, two sets of voters go to the polls to choose their MPs in by-elections. One, in Clacton-on-Sea (on the coast of Essex), was caused by Douglas Carswell’s decision to defect to UKIP and then put himself up for re-election by a constituency that had elected him as a Conservative. The second, in Heywood and Middleton (near Manchester) was caused by the death of Labour MP Jim Dobbin. In theory – these two by-elections should be foregone conclusions – in that they should be clear victories for Carswell and UKIP and for Labour candidate Liz McInnes. But in practice the actual voting numbers for all parties will be looked at closely for clues about the next election.
Let’s start in Clacton. Douglas Carswell has a 12,500 majority from the 2010 election, in which he achieved 53% of the vote in his constituency. This would be significant – as it is only a minority of seats that see winners get over 50% of the vote – but UKIP decided not too stand against him. Carswell is generally regarded as an excellent MP, who has worked hard for his constituents as a visible representative. He is also standing in a constituency in which the demographics are SO UKIP-friendly that Nigel Farage would have probably stood there had anyone but Carswell been in place. The population of the constituency is older, poorer, and with a lower standard of education than many other constituencies, and lacks any significant quantity of normally left-leaning voters such as students or the graduate-educated middle class. UKIP didn’t stand against Carswell because he was essentially the nearest Conservative to UKIP in his beliefs and policies anyway – being a natural libertarian, hugely Eurosceptic, and very “curse-on-all-their-houses” about the Westminster elite. Put it this way, it would be a massive shock of off-the-richter-scale proportions if Carswell lost. So, it looks like the first UKIP MP will take a seat in the House of Commons on Friday.
So far, so predictable and uninteresting. So look out instead for how much of Carswell’s majority remains intact, or even increases. It will be interesting to see whether any of the other parties makes any traction against Carswell – particularly the Conservative candidate, Giles Watling. David Cameron has only visited the constituency once, suggesting he has accepted the Conservatives’ underdog status. The Lib Dems? Likely to lose their deposit, and possibly could be beaten by one or two of the Independent candidates, but possibly not the Monster Raving Loony Party candidate. For a report of the debate the major candidates had recently, click here.
Meanwhile, in Heywood and Middleton, the battle is all about UKIP and Labour. Dobbin had represented the constituency since 1997. He had a majority of just under 6,000 at the last election. He stood as a candidate under the banner of “Labour and Cooperative”, which means that he was endorsed by both parties – a sign of his left-wing stance on many issues. McInnes is a clinical scientist working for the NHS, so it is not a surprise that Labour have put the NHS front and centre of their campaign, with Ed Miliband talking about it in particular when he went to visit. UKIP see this by-election as a test of the extent to which they can indeed “park their tanks on Labour’s lawn”. A spokesman pointed out that if they can come a solid second then they can be seen as the second party in the North, ahead of the Conservatives and Lib Dems. The fact that UKIP are talking about second place at all shows they don’t fancy their chances much. But they are right that all parties will be looking at the vote they get here – especially after having had their recent conference in Doncaster and having spent much of that talking about Labour. Should that strategy not work, I wonder if they will think about whether they will get more traction in traditionally Tory constituencies. After all, selling UKIP as a friend of the working classes given their policies on tax is not easy.
So, whilst it is likely to be UKIP in Clacton, and Labour in Heywood and Middleton, look at margins of victory and who comes second more closely than you might have done.