Mark Reckless’ UKIP victory over the Tories serves notice on all the parties. The Tories, having sworn to ‘throw the kitchen sink’ at retaining it in Cameron’s words he must now regret, see a near-10,000 Tory majority in 2010 turned into a 3,000 (7.3%) UKIP lead. Labour, which never had a chance of winning, loses nearly half its vote. The LibDems virtually disappear with less than 1% of the vote. Of course by-elections are wholly different from general elections, but the result for UKIP in Rochester, 271st in their list of target seats, hardly suggests that the Farage phenomenon, based largely on sentiment rather than policy, has lost momentum. But there are several important implications.
The likelihood of further defections of Tory MPs has apparently subsided for the moment, though with at least 5 Tory MPs having little or no chance of holding their seats next year unless they switch to UKIP, that could very well change in the next 6 months. For the Tory party as a whole chasing UKIP to the Right is likely to be counter-productive since Farage will always be able to outflank them. For Labour the odds on countering UKIP are more promising. Research has shown that UKIP supporters believe big business takes advantage of ordinary people and they strongly agree there is one law for the rich and one for the poor. They are largely working class voters, they want to renationalise rail and energy, they demand higher taxes for the rich and an increased minimum wage, and they even want income redistribution. What this says is that though these policies are anathema to New Labour, they fit perfectly with traditional Labour policy. So why has this new insurgency of Labour persuasion joined the hard Right?
Clearly because they don’t believe that Labour will deliver this transformation that they crave for. It’s true that Labour has in fact promoted several proposals which would deliver many of these demands, but there has not been a forceful presentation of a single policy capable of decisively swinging public opinion in Labour’s favour. The one that cries out to be proclaimed is that a Labour government, recognising the sense of abandonment, anger and hopelessness that has driven loss of security and identity, will steadily move away from austerity and endless spending cuts and instead go down the alternative route of public investment, growth, jobs and rising incomes, not only to escape the blind alley of Osborne’s destruction of the welfare state but because that is now the only way to pay down the deficit. When austerity itself is causing the deficit to rise this year, sticking with Osborne’s policies is certifiable. It’s also the only game-changer in town that’s likely to stop the SNP advance that’s threatening wipe-out for Labour in Scotland. So what’s Labour waiting for?