The dust has settled and the votes are in, it must be time to look at the aftermath of the Wythenshawe and Sale East by-election. The by-election was called as a result of the death of Paul Goggins, who had been MP for the constituency since 1997.
Despite containing some Conservative areas in the Sale wards, this constituency has been a reasonably safe Labour seat since 1997 when the constituency was created – albeit on a steadily decreasing majority.1 Ed Miliband will therefore be relieved to have held on to the seat, with the Labour candidate receiving over 50% of the vote, even on a substantially lower turnout compared with the 2010 general election.2 A reduced majority would have been embarrassing, and losing – or coming close to losing – the seat would have been a severe blow at this stage in the electoral cycle, where Labour ought to be making gains in preparation for the 2015 general election.
As with the Eastleigh3 and South Shields4 by-elections though, the story which has made the headlines is the performance of UKIP. Once again the party full of ‘fruit cakes’ (according to Cameron)5 has given the Lib Dems a drubbing and beaten the Conservatives into third place, although they were still a significant distance away from posing a serious challenge to Labour. For Cameron, being beaten by UKIP in one by-election might be considered unfortunate, being beaten in two smacks of carelessness, and a third loss suggests incompetence.
Of course, we cannot simply extrapolate from by-elections to general elections – though I’m sure Farage & Co. will make an admirable attempt. The low turnout in a by-election can affect major parties who find it difficult to get their supporters out to vote when there is limited publicity, whilst simultaneously making it easier for a small party campaigning on a single issue to make a large breakthrough in percentage terms with just a few thousand votes.
Despite the danger of extrapolating results, and regardless of whether UKIP poses a real threat, this result is another setback for Cameron in the eyes of his backbenchers who would like him to take a harder line on Europe – and no doubt on the Lib Dems as well.
So what is Cameron to do? One option is an electoral pact, whereby UKIP candidates stand aside in favour of a sufficiently eurosceptic Conservative – which has been suggested in the past6 and backed by activists,7 but dismissed by Osborne.8 Whilst this might save a few seats, there is no guarantee that UKIP candidates would agree to stand aside, or that their supporters would switch to voting Conservative. It would also be politically humiliating for Cameron to have to come to such an agreement with a minor party. Finally, when such electoral pacts have been tried in the past, they usually end in severe disappointment for one of the parties – and not necessarily the smaller partner.
Another option is to lurch to the right in an attempt to take UKIP’s ground. However, this risks the Conservatives once again being seen as the ‘nasty party’, and would undo much of Cameron’s work to detoxify the Conservative brand since he became leader. Abandoning the centre ground would also be a gift to Labour, who might benefit sufficiently from disaffection with austerity to obtain a majority at the next general election.
The most sensible option, however, is for Cameron to hold his nerve and attempt to brush off UKIP’s electoral success – which, it should be noted, has yet to lead to a single seat in Westminister – as mid-term blues (or should that be purples?). This appears to be the path which Cameron is currently following, though the real test will come in the European elections later this year. If UKIP somehow manage to beat the Conservatives into second place – which admittedly would require a substantial swing either from the Conservatives or towards UKIP – then Cameron will be forced to rethink his attitude towards them.
- Labour majorities: 15,019 (1997), 12,608 (2001), 10,827 (2005), 7,575 (2010)
- 23,961 (28%) vs 40,751 (54.3%)
- Fallout from the Eastleigh by-election
- South Shields and local election results
- David Cameron: UKIP ‘A Bunch Of Fruitcakes, Loonies And Closet Racists’
- Should the Conservatives forge an electoral pact with Ukip?
- Ukip pact backed by nearly half of Conservative activists
- George Osborne rules out Ukip-Conservative pact