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Douglas Carswell’s defection: high stakes

Douglas Carswell on BBCI know it was wrong, but when Douglas Carswell announced his defection to UKIP and the forcing of a by-election in his Clacton constituency, I couldn’t help but think “brilliant!“. I imagine the prime minister was somewhat less chuffed. His terrible summer has taken a distinct turn for the worst. And as for UKIP it needed something to command the headlines again, and they have successfully captured them with style.

Carswell, however, is not and won’t be your archetypal ‘kipper. Yes, he agrees with the party’s europhobia and wants to see a little Britain paddle out into the mid-Atlantic. But that’s about as far as he goes. He’s a rare beast among the Tories, a politician who actually takes the hard right, libertarian principles he espouses seriously. Never mind that so-called “libertarianism” is the comfy shoe for capital’s iron heel. Still, when Carswell gave his defection speech yesterday and praised modern Britain for its tolerance, diversity and, yes, feminism; you don’t have to be Mystic Meg to foresee tensions somewhere down the line.

That, however, is the far future. Now is what matters, and this contest is high, high stakes for UKIP and the Tories. For UKIP, it’s obvious really. If Carswell wins it shows the party can win a first-past-the-post contest. The morale of ‘kippers up and down the land will soar, Tory defections at the yellowing grass roots level will pick up and, more significantly, UKIP’s co-religionists on the government benches might be emboldened to take the plunge. For Dave, this is the Tories worst nightmare. Carswell has not so much reopened Tory wounds over Europe, more ripped off the plaster and stuck a whacking great oar in.

There will be no talking up the economy and concentrating fire on Labour as per the Crosby playbook. Instead Dave has been manoeuvred into trading blows on the ground of UKIP’s own choosing, on an issue way down anyone but hard right voters’ priority list. Win or lose in Clacton, the Tories will not be able to focus their attention on the centre ground and key marginals. Things were looking grim next year anyway. Carswell has just made their horizon look all the more threatening.

On the outcomes for Clacton, UKIP and the Tories will throw all they can at it. Just like Newark, the entire national apparatus of the Conservative Party will relocate for the duration. Unlike Newark, it is the Tories that are the challenger party. What was a huge majority for them is totally open to contestation.

Except it’s not. UKIP have no local councillors, and of the nine seats they hold on Essex County Council, none hail from Clacton. What UKIP does have in its favour is their European election vote. They polled 19,398 votes, as against the Conservatives’ 9,981 and Labour’s 5,241. The standard, establishment argument is that protest votes tend to fall back in parliamentary elections as “these matter”.

However, the by-election (which is likely to take place in October) is, like the Euros, a second order election. Because it is an election that “doesn’t matter”, that huge UKIP vote plus Carswell’s incumbency advantage is likely to swing behind him. Today talk has been of a safe Tory seat becoming a three-way marginal overnight. No. On the basis of what’s gone before, the character of the election, and the political mood it could well go from straight from safe Tory to safe UKIP. If seeing that happen doesn’t embolden the hard Tory right, nothing will.

The one great unknown in the coming by-election is the anti-UKIP vote, and this is where Labour needs to be serious. In the Newark by-election, we saw the emergence of something novel: an anti-UKIP protest vote. As UKIP’s vote has surged, so has a growing, hostile counter-reaction among more centrist voters of all political persuasions. Though a barnpot like Roger Helmer was never really any threat to the Tory position there, anecdotal evidence suggests they were helped by voters who would never otherwise support the Conservatives to keep UKIP out. In Clacton, on the basis of the Euro poll, this might happen again.

The temptation in London would be for Labour to commit few resources and leave it to the local party to fight off two national mobilisations. This must not happen. Labour needs to fight to be the repository of the anti-UKIP protest vote. The reasoning is quite simple. If we do not work to be the natural home of that reaction, then in the swing seats next year, everywhere on paper UKIP is in with a notional shout of winning, these seats, the ones our party needs to win off the Tories might find them strengthened by an anti-UKIP backlash as they’re the “best-positioned” to keep Farage and company out. If I was the Tories, that’s the card I’d play.

Clacton is high stakes all round. It’s more than a family squabble among the right.

This article first appeared at All that is Solid

Image credit: BBC

3 Comments

  1. Robert says:

    That’s your view obviously it’s not for all of us, labour is now a Progress run party so far away from the formation of labour in 1900 it’s more dam Tory then socialist Miliband is about the weakest leader I’ve ever seen and the fact is Progress have now take the party to the right.

    UKIP to me is a Protest vote if enough people protest maybe just maybe somebody will say labour needs to look at it’s direction.

    If the next election is hung it would not surprise me in the least to see labour as the junior coalition partner.

    I will more then likely not be voting at the next election I do not wish to have a party of the right, so if by some shock I decided to vote then it would be UKIP.

    1. Ultra_Fox says:

      “I do not wish to have a party of the right, so if… I decided to vote then it would be UKIP.”

      Contradiction much?

      UKIP want to introduce further privatisation of the NHS and attacks on employment rights. They offer no solutions whatsoever to the problems faced in modern Britain.

  2. swatantra says:

    I’ve just heard that Andrew Mitchell’s dad has just died; and guess what he was an MP. And last week I learnt that Lindsay Hoyle Dty Speaker, Labour, his dad was an MP! You couldn’t make it up. Its self perpetuating elitism, like passing on the baton to your son or the proud miner dad saying his son will follow in his footsteps ‘down the pit’. Which begs the question how many of the present lot have had MPs in the family?
    I would have liked to have said that ‘I’m the first member of my family to have been an MP’ but obviously its not going to happen now.
    Can we introduce a jury type selection sysyem for selecting MPs in future?

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