Are Ukip a genuine protest vote? Will they replace the Liberal Democrats as the third largest party? Such questions were raised given the historic support for the party in the recent by-elections. Their leader, Nigel Farage, stated last Friday. “The political establishment is just going to have to wake up to the fact that Ukip is here and here to stay as a significant and rising mainstream part of British politics.”
Vince Cable insisted today Ukip can no longer be dismissed a fringe party. Owen Jones lamented the failure of the left as Ukip rise. Daniel Hannan, Conversative MEP, argued for a Conservative/Ukip pact. John Harris, of the Guardian, wrote about their surge and becoming a political force. Across the political divide, many are already convinced.
Can these big assertions stand up to scrutiny? When you analyse the figures, it seems less impressive. An achievement built on very low turnouts and rejection of the Coalition government parties.
The 2012 by-election average stands at an embarrassing 21.9%. Manchester Central recorded one of the lowest post-war turnouts on record (18.2%). Ukip’s Christopher Cassidy picked up 4.5% of the vote and lost his deposit along with the Conservative candidate. The swing from the Liberal Democrats to Labour was 16.77%.
Simon Zeigler stood for Ukip in Cardiff South and Penarth in the recent by-election and in 2010’s General Election. His vote share only increased by 34 to 1,179 as turnout fell by over 60% to 25.65%. Ukip finished in fifth place behind the major parties and Plaid Cymru twice.
The controversial and homophobic remarks by Winston McKenzie did not prevent Ukip finishing a presentable third in Croydon-North. However, they were a distant third behind Labour and the Conservatives, as turnout hit a meagre 26.5%.
The north did bring bigger success to Ukip as they came in second place in both Rotherham and Middlesbrough. For the latter, turnout had almost halved from 2010 (25.91%). Votes for the Coalition parties dropped dramatically along with the BNP’s. By in large, their votes either contributed to Labour’s big majority or divided among minority parties like Ukip. In the General Election, the BNP polled higher than Ukip who finished sixth (losing their deposit). Last month, a ComRes poll indicated 12% of Ukip voters would seriously consider voting BNP at the next election compared to 5% of Labour voters and 3% of Liberal Democrats and Conservatives.
Rotherham became the political perfect storm for Ukip heading into the by-election as the fostering story dominated headlines. Both sides of the political spectrum were quick to register outrage without all the facts. It would appear to be more complex than originally reported. It was an emergency fostering as the council dealt with allegations that the birth father sexually abused two of the female children. Furthermore, the parents successfully argued to a family court judge that the council had failed the children’s linguistic needs by not providing a means to learn the language of their birth.
Turnout was higher than most recent by-elections (33.63%) but greatly down on the General Election figure of 59%. Ukip’s vote almost doubled as Liberal Democrat and Conservative votes imploded, causing the former to lose another deposit. The BNP vote share was bigger than both combined. Labour still managed a swing of 6.5% from the Tories as their vote share increased slightly, despite public anger at the expenses of former MP Dennis McShane and problems within the local party to pick a candidate.
Farage admitted on Sky News that the fostering scandal probably did not have a big impact on their vote, stating. “We’ve got a good, active local branch here. We fight local elections here. We are well known. The fostering row didn’t hurt our vote. But I rather agree [that] whilst people were very upset and outraged by it, not that many people changed their vote purely on that issue.”
Their modest success brought no victories. But a larger share of the vote is not much to celebrate when by-election turnouts were at near record lows. Can Ukip turn these small successes into seats in 2015? Mike Smithson, of Political Betting, believes in the Labour-Conservative battlegrounds, Liberal Democrat voters will turn blue or red. Ukip could still finish third in the popular vote and not gain any seats.
It is worth reading this interesting analysis on Ukip and polling methodology to see a disparity between telephone and internet polling. Ukip are the protest vote that did not happen by the evidence of these by-elections.