There have been plenty of flash in the pan by-election successes. Whether Ukip transcends that fate depends on the Conservative party's fortunesby Peter Kellner / October 10, 2014 / Leave a comment
Ukip’s victory in Clacton is certainly dramatic; but have we been here before? During the Second World War, a new left-wing party called Common Wealth won three by-elections. It was crushed in the 1945 general election and disappeared as a political force soon after.
In 1973 Dick Taverne resigned as Labour MP for Lincoln, fought a by-election as “Democratic Labour”, and held his seat with a majority of 13,000—only to lose it the following year in the second general election of 1974.
In the 1980s, the newly-formed Social Democratic Party won three by-elections: Shirley Williams in Crosby (1981), Roy Jenkins in Glasgow, Hillhead (1982) and, most emphatically of all, Rosie Barnes in Greenwich (1987), who secured 53 per cent of the vote. The SDP collapsed soon after the 1987 general election.
This trip down memory lane suggests that Ukip will turn out to be another dazzling political comet that streaks briefly across our skies before disappearing. Could it end up as little more than a right-of-centre version of Common Wealth, Democratic Labour and the SDP?
Perhaps; but this time could be different. Ukip now has a chance to sustain its momentum, with Mark Reckless probably winning Rochester and Strood in a few weeks time, and other Conservative MPs defecting after that. Ukip could well come third in the popular vote next May, ahead of the Liberal Democrats; and although they will have far fewer MPs than the Lib Dems, they will have a base on which they can then build.
Whether they then fade, as the SDP did eventually, or advance further, depends largely on whether the Tories win the general election. If they do, and David Cameron has enough support in Parliament to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, then Ukip’s fox will be shot. Whatever the result of the referendum, Ukip’s main raison d’etre will disappear: we shall have settled the matter one way or the other.
There is another possibility. Ukip will syphon off enough Tory votes next May not just to win a few seats, but to tilt the balance against the Conservatives in a number of Con-Lab marginals…