Yesterday the Conservatives resorted to the old clichés about by-elections being a mid-term protest as they expressed confidence they would regain Rochester and Strood from Ukip’s Mark Reckless at next May’s general election.
It was an inevitable but inadequate response. If the Tories really believe the “Farage effect” is just another mid-term blip, they really are the stupid party. I suspect they know the politics of anger and grievance, skilfully tapped into by Ukip, will not suddenly melt away next May. Although Ukip offers few solutions, the temptation for voters to say “a plague on all your houses” will be strong.
The Tory election strategy is clear: if you want a long-term economic plan, action on immigration and welfare and an in/out referendum on Europe, vote for us. If you vote Ukip, you risk putting Ed Miliband into Downing Street. “We will ask people to get serious, remind them they are choosing a government and a prime minister,” one senior Tory told me. But he admitted: “We haven’t a clue how many we will get back from Ukip.”
Rochester gave Nigel Farage a neat riposte to the Tories’ “vote Ukip, get Miliband” pitch. He said the by-election showed that “when you vote Ukip, you get Ukip”.
In pictures: Rochester by-election
In pictures: Rochester by-election
1/15 Rochester by-election
Counting gets under way for the Rochester and Strood constituency by-election held at Medway Park, Gillingham, Kent
2/15 Rochester by-election
Nigel Farage and members of the UKIP team celebrate after Mark Reckless won the Rochester and Strood by-election at Medway Park, Gillingham near Rochester, Kent
3/15 Rochester by-election
Howling Laud Hope, leader of the Official Monster Raving Loony Party (R) awaits for the by election results in Medway, Gillingham Rochester, Kent
4/15 Rochester by-election
Kelly Tolhurst, the Conservative Party's candidate in the Rochester's by-election, walks down the town's high street on polling day, in southern England
5/15 Rochester by-election
Gulpreet Baines (18) sets fire to a United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) rosette, on polling day in Rochester's by-election
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Naushabah Khan, Labour Candidate for the Rochester and Strood by-election is joined by shadow transport secretary Michael Dugher in Rochester on the final day of campaigning ahead of by-election
7/15 Rochester by-election
UKIP supporter Graham Harper and his dog Roquie carry a electoral poster supporting UK Independence Party (UKIP) parliamentary candidate Mark Reckless in Rochester, Kent ahead of the by-election poll
8/15 Rochester by-election
A customer poll of sweets purchased in favour of the party's contesting the Rochester and Strood by-elecction on display in the Sweet Expectations Sweet Shop in Rochester, Kent, on the final day of campaigning before the by-election later this week
9/15 Rochester by-election
David Cameron and Conservative Party candidate for Rochester and Strood, Kelly Tolhurst, talk to Mick Parks, Workshop Foreman at MCL Mechanical near Rochester, Kent, southern England, during a visit ahead of the by-election
10/15 Rochester by-election
People stand holding placards against the Britain First party who held a march in Rochester, southeastern England
11/15 Rochester by-election
Britain First march through Rochester
12/15 Rochester by-election
UKIP parliamentary candidate Mark Reckless campaigns in Rochester on November 4, 2014
Rob Stothard/Getty Images
13/15 Rochester by-election
Ed Miliband campaigns with Yvette Cooper (left) and Naushabah Khan before the Rochester and Strood by-election
Ben A. Pruchnie/Getty Images
14/15 Rochester by-election
The Britain First march was met by vociferous counter protest
15/15 Rochester by-election
A UKIP office in Rochester. Rochester and Strood will hold a by-election on November 20th following the defection of Conservative Party Member of Parliament, Mark Reckless to UKIP
Rob Stothard/Getty Images
Mr Cameron is getting conflicting advice on how to combat the Ukip threat. Tory modernisers believe the by-election proves that you cannot “outkip Ukip”. In recent weeks, the Prime Minister has ramped up the rhetoric on the EU and immigration but it didn’t halt the march of Mr Farage’s “people’s army”. Tory modernisers fear Mr Cameron will only drive more natural Conservatives into Ukip’s arms by trying to ape it – while alienating the younger and ethnic minority voters the Tories will need to win future elections.
Mr Cameron’s problem is that he has an election to fight in May. So when he makes a big speech soon on his plans to limit EU migration, he will not want to pull his punches.
The Tories took comfort from being able to share the pain from Thursday’s by-election with Labour, which made another disastrous error when Emily Thornberry, the now former shadow Attorney General, tweeted a picture of a white van man’s house in Rochester with three England flags.
Like Ed Miliband forgetting to mention the deficit and immigration in his Labour conference speech, Ms Thornberry’s mistake was symbolic. It was an early Christmas present for Ukip as it targets Labour’s working-class supporters. At a time when politicians are accused of being out of touch, her remark that she had not seen anything like the three England flags was toxic.
Labour had hoped the by-election would provide a break from Mr Miliband’s woes, as the media spotlight turned to the Tories’ troubles. There was no such respite. Indeed, the Labour leader is one reason why there is no “wobble” on the Tory backbenches this weekend or any attempt to dump Mr Cameron, like the coup Mr Miliband had to see off this month. “Miliband gives us hope that we can still be the largest party after next May,” said a senior Tory MP. “He’s Cameron’s best asset. We are still in the game.”
Labour’s response to Rochester was more grown-up than the complacent Tory talk of mid-term blues. Douglas Alexander, who is charge of Labour’s election strategy, said last night that the “rising level of anger among the public” had built up over decades. “Simply amplifying anger is not enough – we need to offer answers,” he said. He argued that all the mainstream parties had to get to grips with a new 21st-century politics defined by contests over “identity and insecurity” rather than simply economic interests.
Ukip faces challenges too. Its mask slipped briefly on the NHS and immigration during the Rochester campaign, a foretaste of the media microscope it will now be under. The big question is whether our new multi-party politics – which also include the Scottish National Party and the Greens – can prosper under a first-past-the-post voting system designed for the two biggest parties.
Ukip is showing a new professionalism but will need it to translate its votes into seats next May. There have been false dawns before, not least when the breakaway Social Democratic Party almost pushed Labour into third place in the 1980s. Today feels very different. My hunch is that the “anger” will not dissipate just because the Tories and Labour tell voters the election is a two-horse race.
Voters have a way of getting what they want, despite the constraints of the electoral system. They could vote tactically where they think Ukip has a chance of winning to send a message to “the Westminster parties.” With Labour and the Tories running at neck and neck in the low 30s in the opinion polls, it looks increasingly like we will have another hung parliament.
My hunch is that Ukip could now win up to 20 seats. It is no longer barmy for Mr Farage to claim his party could hold the balance of power. However, he might not be alone; the Liberal Democrats and the SNP could be in the same boat. It might take a combination of more than two parties to create a Commons majority. If you thought the two-party coalition formed in 2010 was complicated, you ain’t seen nothing yet.