So Nigel Farage won’t run in Newark. As Ukippers of a traditional type might lament: “Our dog won’t fight”. Bottling it is a great mistake by the Ukip leader, and history tells us why he has not yet learnt all the tricks of third-party politics. For example, there’s been some comment about Ukip that describes them as the new SDP – the centrist (and very pro-European) party that “broke the mould” of British politics in the early 1980s - or tried to.
The point has been made, rightly, that, like the liberals before them and the Alliance and the Liberal Democrats who came after, spectacular by-election wins were key to their maintaining momentum. But it wasn’t just by-election wins, as such.
One of the first the SDP went for in 1981 was at Warrington, a safe Labour seat. Their candidate was the very well-known Roy Jenkins, former Chancellor and Home Secretary, and back from Europe as ex-president of the EU Commission. A similar public profile, in recognition terms, to Farage today.
Jenkins lost, in fact, but not by that much, and the scale of the swing helped him to go to win an almost equally unlikely later by-election in a seat – Glasgow Hillhead in 1982, and for his colleague, Shirley Williams to triumph in rock-solid Tory Crosby that same year.
So it isn’t just about wins. (The Liberal near-miss at Inverness in 1954, forgotten by all but political anoraks, was also significant and helped the spark that era’s Lib revival, with wins in Torrington and the Orpington “earthquake” following on). As Jenkins said in his memorable post-loss speech at the Warrington count, he had won many elections since he’d entered parliament in 1948, but Warrington was by far his greatest victory.
Two other observations; the Welsh but very English sounding Jenkins had no connections with Glasgow, and was indeed derided for his unScottishness, but that didn’t prevent him going for it and winning there; Farage could have overcome his lack of connections with Newark. Second, both Shirley Williams and Jenkins showed great guts in taking on the challenges they did (though there were prevarications and manoeuvrings along the way).
Had Farage fought in Eastleigh last year he'd probably have won, and this by-election in Newark would maybe bring another Ukipper into Westminster. It might even have broken the mould of British politics. As it is he seems to want to follow Gordon “Bottler” Brown who, you may recall, ran away from a 2007 general election he had mooted just because the polls shifted against him. For all his appeal, Farage appears to lack one quality of leadership the British electorate admire: courage.